The Norris Trophy is awarded to the NHL’s top “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” This season, I believe no other defenseman is more deserving than Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang.
Two years ago, Letang’s career as a hockey player seemed uncertain. After suffering a stroke at the age of 26, Letang missed ten weeks of the 2013-14 season. Once doctors determined the stroke wasn’t career threatening and hockey didn’t increase the chances for another one, Letang returned to the ice to finish the season. A remarkable achievement in itself. Letang’s ability to return reveals his capacity to overcome such detrimental setbacks.
Fast forward to today, and Letang has not suffered any other medical condition related to his stroke. The difficulties which Letang has faced throughout his career has turned him into a better player. This season saw Letang achieve new career highs after posting 67 points 16G-51A.
Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson ranks number one in points among defenseman this season. His 82 points, 16G-66A are career highs for him as well. He won the Norris Trophy last year and won it before in the 2011-12 season. However, he has a career plus-minus rating of -21 and finished this season as a -2. This rating determines how often a player is on-ice for a goal or on the receiving end of a goal. While this statistic isn’t indicative of a player’s skill, it shows that Karlsson is on-ice when the opposing team scores more often than not. Karlsson has been prone to have lapses in the defensive zone throughout his career. Meanwhile, Letang finished as a +9 this season after going -14 through the first 22 games.
Second among league defenseman is San Jose Sharks’ Brent Burns with 74 points 27G-47A. As a former forward, Burns’ skill set has translated into his offensive-defensive role effectively. Posting 27 goals on the season ranks best alongside other defenseman. Although Burns’ main drawback comes in the defensive zone like Karlsson, where he’s a -5 on the year. His role for San Jose fits in line with their fast-attack style of play. It may be that his play style could be used more effectively if he shifted over to a forward role once more. Burns is an excellent player regardless of the position he plays, but it’s clear he’s used as a more offensive force than a defensive one for the Sharks.
Third in rank
In third place ranks Letang. Much like the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Letang struggled to find his game early on in the season. His play took a turn for the better once Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench on December 12. The fast pace and puck-possession style Sullivan incorporated has meshed perfectly with Letang’s play style. In past seasons, Letang struggled with turnovers, especially in the defensive zone. Sullivan has emphasized the need to reduce turnovers as a team, and this system has allowed Letang to achieve his career-high numbers.
He’s made key defensive clears throughout the season, with the most recent time coming against the Senators on April 5. The puck was shot on goal and was destined to go in until Letang swept it away inches from going into the net.
When Letang is in the lineup for Pittsburgh, his impact is obvious. He averages the most ice-time on the team and ranks second on the team in points. A prime example of this came when the Penguins faced the Buffalo Sabres on March 29. A game where Letang established 35:14 of ice-time was the most he ever played in a game. He also scored the game-winning shootout goal later in the contest. The speed and skill at which Letang plays adds to the Penguins’ team as a whole.
A key part of Pittsburgh’s clinch of second place in the Metropolitan Division has come from Letang’s play. Captain Sidney Crosby and himself had an eight-game point streak together to end the regular season. With Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup due to injury, Letang stepped up big to contribute to the Penguins’ push to the playoffs.
For the setbacks he’s experienced throughout his career, and the level of play he sustained through this year, Letang deserves the award of the league’s best defenseman. He covers all areas of the ice for Pittsburgh, and he’s instrumental for the Penguins’ playoff hopes.