People get into ruts. There’s no questioning it—most people like doing what they know. There’s a comfort level when you do the same thing instead of stepping out of the box and doing something else. Whenever we aren’t quite sure what to do, we fall back on what we know – what we’re accustomed to. The hockey writers who vote for the year-end awards are no different.
Year after year, we hear the same names being bounced around when we talk about the Norris Trophy. Up until last year, Nicklas Lidstrom had owned the trophy for so long even Bobby Orr had to ask for permission to see it. Duncan Keith could lead the league in giveaways this year and he’ll still get consideration. Drew Doughty could start the season with the worst two months of his career and some people will mention his name. Mike Green will be a finalist, but won’t win because the “experts” will say he can’t play defense (no matter what the numbers say). Chris Pronger could be a convicted thief and… well, you get the picture.
If it weren’t for hockey writers being used to recycling the same names year after year, here are the three guys we’d be hearing about who really deserve to be the Norris Finalist through the first quarter of the season: John Michael Liles, Kris Letang, and Dustin Byfuglien. For hockey fans out there who believe in “Moneypuck” stats, these are easily the three best defensemen in the league this year. But of course, sometimes realizing change can take a little while. Hell, two-thirds of these guys weren’t even listed on the All-Star ballot!
John Michael Liles
One of the biggest turn-arounds of the young season is John Michael Liles in Colorado. Last season, he was plagued with a lingering shoulder problem that saw him fall from grace, battle for playing time, and even lead to some time in the press box as a healthy scratch. Some people forget that even though he only appeared in 59 games last year and was battling a nagging injury, he still led Colorado defensemen with 31 points (lowest of his career).
But from opening day, he has shown that this year would be different. Liles started this season in record fashion by notching assists in each of his first 9 games. Some people have noticed his hot start:
One player who shouldn’t be ignored, even though he almost certainly will be is John-Michael Liles of the Colorado Avalanche. At one point not too long ago, the offensive defenseman was the source of derision, a scapegoat for the Avs’ newly found post-lockout struggles.” –James O’Brien (NBC’s ProHockeyTalk.com)
He’s known as an offensive guy, but he’s playing against some of the best opponents. (Prepare for a nerd-out stat) So far this year, his quality of competition is only behind Adam Foote (who hasn’t played much this year) and Matt Hunwick (who was just acquired) on the Avalanche. Even though he’s playing against some of the best competition, he’s still a +11 this season. For a bit of perspective, he’s in the top 10 among blueliners in plus/minus. Oh, and for the offensive part of his game that he’s known for? He’s 3rd in defenseman scoring with 4 goals and 20 assists. Not too bad for a guy who was a healthy scratch last year.
The offense is great, and will get him noticed, but all of the other things he’s been bringing to the ice this year are what sets him apart. With the injury problems the Avalanche have had on the blueline, he’s been paired with rookies and anyone else Joe Sacco wanted to put him with. Unlike years past, he’s showing that he can help make players around him better instead of the other way around. Besides—the way I judge really good players is if they make their teammates around them better. He’s making the forwards look better by putting them in positions to score, he’s making defensive partners look good by covering up for mistakes, and he’s making goaltenders look good by playing well in his own zone.
Coming into the season, there were a ton of headlines for the Pittsburgh defense. Sergei Gonchar was off to Ottawa as GM Ray Shero chose to go with a blueline built around Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Conventional wisdom said the Pens blueline was going to be much improved from last year when it lead to their ultimate demise. But most of the thinking was that the improvement would come from the two newcomers. While they’re acclimating themselves to the Steel City and the Penguins are a serious Cup contender, it’s a familiar face who has been leading the rebuilt blueline.
Like Liles, Letang has been a guy who was regarded as a smallish offensive-minded defenseman who could be a bit of a liability in his own zone. But even back in juniors, he was a guy who could play both ends of the ice and actually won awards for his play in his own zone. From day one, he’s shown the offensive skill in the NHL that made him such a promising player—but this year he’s showing he’s an effective player in all three zones. He’s doing the dirty work you might not expect from a defender who has almost a point per game. Whether it’s battling in the corners or negating an opponent in front of the net, he’s transitioning from “offensive defenseman” to “two-way defenseman.” Believe it or not, Letang has been playing tougher competition than teammates Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek (at least statistically speaking). Who saw that coming?
“Always a dynamic force carrying the puck, Letang is playing superbly when the other team has it. In other words, Letang is playing defense.
‘He’s putting it all together,’ Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said after the win in New York. ‘Kris is a guy who’s always had the talent, the skating, the bite to his game. He’s just 23 years old, and now we’re seeing the package.’” –Christopher Botta (NHL Fanhouse)
Maybe fans will start taking note of the 23-year-old for more than just his hair.
Here’s the story with Dustin Byfuglien: The first thing Atlanta’s management asked him was, “Do you prefer offense or defense?” Despite making a name for himself in last year’s playoffs by setting up a folding-chair in front of Roberto Luongo, he stated (like he repeatedly had in the past) that he preferred to play defense. The Thrashers told him that if he came to training camp in shape and ready to play, they’d start him out on the blueline. Even though people around the hockey community questioned the decision (see: Roenick, Jeremy), the team followed through with the move. It looks like it’s working out.
“Dustin will still have his off moments, but that is to be expected from a guy who played forward for the last two seasons. He is making a conscious decision to attack a lot on offense, but he isn’t a defensive liability by any stretch of the imagination.” –Jim Neveau (The Hockey Writers)
The Thrashers are leading the league in power play efficiency and there’s no question that Dustin Byfuglien’s play has a lot to do with it. He’s second on the team in PP ice-time and is tied for the league lead for PP goals by a defenseman (4). He’s leading NHL defensemen in both goals and points. But it’s not just the points he’s scoring—its when he’s scoring. He’s currently leading the entire league with 5 game-winning goals.
Aside from questions about his play in his own zone, Byfuglien’s biggest hurdle might be one of his own teammates. Some people around the Thrashers think Tobias Enstrom has been better this year—and really the reason for Byfuglien’s success. But through 29 games this season, Big Buff has been taking the “Mike Green” route towards defensive recognition. Score enough points and people will have to take note!
Of course, the great start is wonderful for each player and their respective teams. But for them to truly be considered for the Norris, they’ll have to play just as good as they have for another 60 games. If they slip just a little bit, they can forget about winning that trophy; and since they’re not named Lidstrom or Pronger, they probably won’t even be nominated.
Who do you think is having the best year among NHL defensemen so far this season?