For much of the past decade, Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom has dominated the race to the Norris Trophy. Lidstrom won the Norris six tof the last nine times it was awarded, doing so in both the pre- and post-lockout NHL. While Lidstrom remains a dominant force on the back end, age has brought him back to the pack, leading to different winners the last two years.
With several new faces emerging, the competition to be named the NHL's best defenseman could be tighter than ever in 2010-11. Here's a look at my top five candidates to win the Norris next season, in reverse order.
5. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings — Yes, Lidstrom is 40 years old, but you can never rule out the six-time winner. He had 49 points last season and played a full 82 games on the Motwon blue line. His nine goals were the fewest he's had since he had the same amount in 2001-02, but both years are a bit of an aberration given that his shot percentage was in the 4 percent range — about two percentage points lower than his career average. If the bounces go in for him — and the Red Wings bounce back from a mediocre season — he could be back in the thick of the Norris hunt.
4. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks — Keith had a breakthrough season for the Cup champions, finishing second to Mike Green in d-man scoring while playing 26:35 a night locking down the opposition's best player and moving the Hawks' potent offense up and down the ice. For his efforts, he won his first Norris Trophy. So why is he fourth? Because outside of Lidstrom, no defenseman has won back-to-back Norrises since Ray Bourque in 1989-90 and 1990-91. Furthermore, recovering from the grind of a long playoff run will be a test for Keith — he played 10 more NHL games than the season before, plus another seven for Canada at the Olympics. Keith will take a step back, but I fully expect him to remain a contender and battle for the prize in years to come.
3. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators — The Preds' new captain is poised for another big season. His 43 points in 2009-10 were a 10 point drop from the year before, but I won't be surprised if Weber can match or better the 23 goals he scored in 2008-09. While he may not have 70-point potential like Keith, Weber could receive more votes if Nashville stays in the playoff hunt with him as their new captain.
2. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins — Plainly put, Chara had a down season in 2009-10. But it's kind of a "what came first, the chicken or the egg?" situation. Did the Bruins struggle because Chara wasn't as dominant as he was when he won the Norris in 2008-09, or did Chara take a hit because the B's faltered? It's probably a combination of both, but you can bet Chara will be ready to roar back come this fall. With an expiring contract and age (33) creeping up on him, Chara will be looking to prove he's still a dominant force.
1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings — Keith won the Norris, but for my money second-year pro Doughty was the NHL's best defenseman in 2009-10. The 20-year-old more than doubled his point output from his rookie season (27 to 59) and went from a minus-17 to a plus-20 for the emerging Kings. But team wins and individual stats aside, Doughty shows off why he's fast becoming the league's best all-around blueliner by showing poise in all situations. He'll need to play more hard minutes in 2010-11 to win the Norris, but he has the skill to do it. That means more PK time — he was fourth in per game shorthanded TOI on L.A. last year — something that should definitely be there for him given the departure of Sean O`Donnell and injury to Matt Greene.
Missing The Cut
Mike Green, Washington Capitals — To be honest, Green will probably be a Norris finalist again if he stays healthy. But he's not going to win until he can shake his reputation as an average defender. While you could argue all five defensemen listed above are the best players on their team, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call Green the Caps' top player — and you probably would see him listed third or even lower by most. That's not a recipe for winning a major award.
Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers — Will Pronger ever slow down? Who knows, but I'm not going to doubt him. The Norris winner from 1999-2000 is still plying his trade, whether that means piling up points, shutting down skill players or exhibiting the NHL's most-feared mean streak. Pronger is frightfully consistent, but even his best is probably not enough to get him in the hunt at season's end.
Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks — Boyle's a very nice player and his numbers are always impressive. But you never get the feeling when watching him that you're looking at a future Hall of Famer. That's kind of a prerequisite of winning the Norris, and for whatever reason Boyle doesn't give off that vibe. A lot of teams (except one in Florida) would kill to have him, but that doesn't mean he deserves to be named hockey's best d-man.
Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres — Myers could battle Doughty for the right to this award for years to come, but it won't be in 2009-10. His rookie season was one of the best ever for a defenseman, but he'll have a new partner in 2010-11 and teams will be watching a lot of film to try and find some chinks in his oversized armor. I expect a small sophomore slump and a big bounce back in 2011-12.