Thursday, March 29, 2012

Considering Karlsson for the Norris

Ottawa is a surprise team this year with their success rate, and Erik Karlsson is a surprise player because of the numbers he has put up in his 3rd season in the NHL and how big of an impact he has had in the success of the Senators. Currently, the Senators are 2nd in the Northeast Division and 7th in the Eastern Conference with 88 points through 77 games (39-28-10) and have a +9 goal differential on the season. It's a huge improvement over last season, where they missed the playoffs by a long shot. Karlsson, too, has improved immensely over last season. But Norris isn't for most improved player, or highest scoring defenseman.

A quick look at Ottawa's team stats as a whole this season as they stand right now: The rank 5th in Goals Per Game (3.00), but are 26th in Goals Against Per Game (2.90; the 1st place team, St. Louis, has 1.80). Washing and Philadelphia, 21st and 20th respectively, are the only other potential playoff teams with such a high GA/G average. Ottawa is 9th in even strength goal differential as well as power play percentage, but 19th in penalty killing. They also rank 9th in most shots for per game, but are 2nd-to-last in shots against per game (32.0). Team rankings can be misleading, obviously. So let's look at Karlsson specifically.

Karlsson is incredibly impressive in his offensive output, which is enough of a reason for many to hand him the Norris immediately (although some argue that those numbers make people brush him off immediately, although I have yet to see anyone actually do that). So far this year, he has 19 goals and 57 assists for 76 points in 76 games and a +18 rating. A point-per-game for a defenseman is impressive. His league rank in points is 7th and 3rd in assists. Needless to say, he leads all defensemen in these scoring categories. In fact, he is 27 points ahead of 2nd place point-scoring defensemen Alex Pietrangelo of St. Louis and Brian Campbell of Florida. He has 3 more goals than Shea Weber of Nashville, who is 2nd in goal scoring for defensemen with 16. Karlsson is 2nd for defensemen with game-winning goals (5) to Pietrangelo (6). He also leads in shots. His 60 takeaways are 1st for defensemen in the league, although his 80 giveaways are the 3rd most.  

Karlsson ranks 10th in time on ice per game for NHL defense; he ranks 5th in even strength TOI, 9th in PP TOI per game, but spends practically no time on ice at all in short-handed situations. He averages 0:31 of SH TOI per game, which is the fewest of any defensemen on the Senators, let alone the league as a whole. But does that disqualify him as a worthy Norris candidate? One Yahoo! Sports writer who thinks Karlsson should win the Norris points out that:
One strike against him is that he averages only 31 seconds on the penalty kill – and that’s because coach Paul MacLean tends to put him out at the end of a PK so the Sens can go back on the attack.
Fair enough. Although, it just highlights that his offense is the biggest - if not only - thing he has to offer. In fact, the very next sentence from the above quote reaffirms this:
How can you be the NHL’s best all-around defenseman if you aren’t one of your team’s main penalty-killers?
Let's compare Karlsson to the standards of recent Norris trophy winners in the years that they won the award. Karlsson has 25:15 average TOI per game, 3:54 PP TOI/G and 0:31 PK TOI/G. Last year's winner, Lidstrom, averaging 23:28 of TOI per game, with 4:03 on the PP and 2:40 on the PK. In 2009-10, Keith had 26:35 TOI/G, 2:48 on the PP, and 2:58 on the PK. In 2008-09, Chara had 26:04 TOI/G, 3:46 on the PP and 3:21 on the PK. All these numbers are flawed because it depends on how much time as a whole spent on the PP or PK in a given season, though.

Karlson's 19 G, 57 A, 76 P, and +18 rating match up well. Lidstrom had 16 G (4th, d-men),  46 A (3rd, d-men), for 62 P (2nd, d-men) and a -2 rating last year. In 09-10, Keith had 14 G (7th, d-men), 55 A (2nd, d-men), and 69 P (2nd, d-men), and a +29 rating. Chara had 19 G (4th, d-men), 31 A (26th, d-men), and 50 P (12th, d-men) and a +23 rating. Certainly these numbers show he is worthy of comparison to the recent winners.

But let's look at the definition of the Norris trophy:
The James Norris Memorial Trophy is presented annually to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in his position (HHOF).
The winners of the Norris trophy in the past have overwhelmingly been solid players offensively and defensively, represented in points as well as time on ice in all situations. This quality is hard to gauge through looking at simple numbers on stat sheets, of course. It's impossible to determine through numbers, period, without watching all the players throughout the season. But, as I have recently decided, the use of advanced statistics is a very helpful aid in gauging on-ice play.

One of the telling stats from Behind the Net is the rank of the Quality of Competition a player faces. A team's best defensemen obviously play the opponent's top players, and the strength of said opponents are weighed against the ice time a defenseman spends facing them and the success rate they have in shutting that opponent down. As displayed here, defensemen who have played at least 50 games this season have the usual Norris suspects among the top ranked (this only considers even strength situations), as well as other top defensemen this season:
  • Brent Seabrook: 0.091 (2nd)
  • Zdeno Chara: 0.090 (3rd)
  • Dan Girardi: 0.089 (4th)
  • Nicklas Lidstrom: 0.083 (9th)
  • Ryan Suter: 0.074 (13th)
  • Shea Weber: 0.073 (14th)
  • Alex Pietrangelo: 0.079 (12th)
  • Duncan Keith: 0.068 (18th)
  • Drew Doughty: 0.051 (33rd)
  • Erik Karlsson: 0.046 (36th)
The defensive partner a player is paired with plays a big role in these numbers, of course, which is why Johnny Boychuk, for example, is ranked so high (0.080 - 11th); he played with Chara for the majority of the season, which means he faced both the teams best players and had a better success rate in shutting them down simply by playing with Chara.

Last season, Norris trophy winner Lidstrom had a QoC rating of 0.128, 1st in the league. The year he won the Norris, Keith ranked at 0.078; the year before, Chara had 0.061. Since Behind the Net has been collecting these metrics, players like Lidstrom have consistently ranked at the top.

Another way Behind the Net ranks QoC is through the Corsi of the QoC. The Corsi QoC number is defined at Behind the Net as "average Corsi of opposing players, weighted by head-to-head ice time". Using the same criteria as above (defensemen with at least 50 games played), Karlsson ranks 111th with -0.155. In comparison, this year, the following players rank:
  • Suter 2.143 (1st)
  • Weber 2.090 (2nd)
  • Girardi 1.251 (17th)
  • Keith 1.434 (10th)
  • Lidstrom 0.790 (33rd)
  • Chara -0.051 (102nd)
Since Corsi measures shots and shots attempted at net, rather than goals scored, it's a very interesting stat for defensemen. Defensemen that allow the opponent to get off/attempt more shots against them while on the ice rather than helping their team outshoot the opponent while on the ice is a way to try to look at how well an offensive defensemen is at covering his own ass in the defensive end. Since they already face the most talented opposition (QoC), it is assumed that they will face more shots than they take. 

I think the first QoC I used above is more accurate and telling, but they both generally give the same idea. And of course, both are flawed by the general idea of how a coach chooses to utilize his players - which lines he wants to put his defensemen out against in any given shift. But since both of the above categories are only looking at even strength, 5 on 5 play, the disparity between Karlsson's time on ice and shorthanded time on ice doesn't obscure the numbers. Even during even strength play, Karlsson is as average at defending as he is exceptional at scoring. Of course, the QoC numbers aren't straightforward because they also use math that weighs the numbers of the opponent, so even though Karlsson's +/-, relative +/-, On-Ice Corsi rank him at the top of the league and the league's defense, the argument can still be made that his offensive talent overshadows his defensive mediocrity. 

I personally already held the belief that a player like Karlsson shouldn't win the Norris because offensive output should not so heavily influence who wins. But the award is defined as the defensemen best at all aspects of his position, and that includes offense. Perhaps he is not as average a defenseman as I am making it seem, and certainly not in a way that makes him unworthy of the Norris. But I do think the defensemen who are exceptional scorers as well as exceptional defenders should receive the Norris. A balanced, solid game. Perhaps Karlsson does play a more balanced game than his numbers and my impressions may state.

Perhaps he is deserving of the Norris after all. That's why I'm not a professional at this stuff. But I certainly think the trophy should go to a handful of more deserving defensemen this season.

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