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Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, Norris Trophy favorite

Greg Wyshynski
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As the highlights of offensive flourish and occasional defense rolled, CBC commentator Don Cherry extolled on the virtues of Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson.

"When you talk about records, you always think of the next guy," he said. "I'm not sayin' he's Babe Ruth, but Babe Ruth had 57 home runs and the next guy had 19."

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Karlsson leads the NHL in scoring by a defenseman with 66 points, which are 23 more than Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers as of Thursday. The Senators have 17 games remaining; at his current pace, Karlsson could end the season with 83 points, which would be the highest total for a defenseman since Ray Bourque's 91 points in 1993-94 — a year in which he won the Norris Trophy.

That offensive output has lifted Erik Karlsson to the top of the 2011-12 Norris race. For the first time, he finished first in the voting by USA Today's 11-person power rankings panel, edging Shea Weber.

"Now, Bobby Orr — and I'm always talkin' about Bobby Orr, yes — the first year he won the scoring title, and he was the first defenseman that did it, he had 131 points," continued Cherry. "The next guy, Jimmy McKenny, had 89 less points. When I had him, [Orr] had 135 points. Denis Potvin, a Hall of Famer, was 59 points less.

"So that's pretty good for Karlsson. TIGHTEN UP A LITTLE DEFENSIVELY, THOUGH."

Yeah, there's the rub. Defense.

I'm on that USA Today panel, and will raise my hand as the party-pooper: I had Karlsson fourth behind Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and Nicklas Lidstrom, with Dan Girardi right behind Karlsson in fifth. For most of the season, I felt I was voting with the majority. Now it feels like I'm swimming upstream as the momentum builds for the crowning of King Karlsson in the Norris race.

His hype around the NHL, at least when it comes to the Norris, has been steadily building. NHL.com now lists Karlsson among its three finalists for the award, along with Shea Weber and Nicklas Lidstrom, the current winner.

But Karlsson's hype has always been enormous in Ottawa, where owner Eugene Melnyk predicted he'd go down as one of the greatest defensemen of all-time. He's been symbolic of the turnaround for the Sens this season: a fresh face, undeniably entertaining and with a personality that's charmed the masses.

Now that hype is getting behind his Norris candidacy, as Don Brennan recently penned a piece about why Karlsson should win the award, including:

The Senators have the most dangerous back line in hockey. Their defence is the motor for what has driven this team into an offensive force. The presence of Karlsson in their lineup — with his speed and hockey sense as well as surprisingly hard shot — forces opponents to re-write their game plan.

This is teetering on "the best defense can be a good offense" territory that Mike Green populated during his Norris candidacies for the Washington Capitals. Which is what set Anthony SanFlippo off back in April 2010 about Green:

It's becoming painfully obvious that many of my colleagues have grown lazy and decide to vote just for the numbers they see on the leader board and take no consideration into the actual definition of the award.

The top three defensive scorers in the NHL? In order, Green, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty. The Norris Finalists? You guessed it, Green, Keith and Doughty.

Luckily for the hockey writers who vote on this award, Doughty and Keith are both deserving. Not only are they top-tier offensive talents, but they are shutdown defensemen playing big minutes against the opposition's best lines. But Green? really?

The Green debate will be revisited with Karlsson, undoubtedly.

Why did I have him fourth on my current ballot? For one, because I've seen enough of Karlsson this year to understand that he's borderline average in his own zone; and Karlsson doesn't face the same quality of competition as peers like Weber, Suter, Girardi and Lidstrom.

Of the top 20 defensemen in average ice time this season, only one averages fewer minutes playing shorthanded than Erik Karlsson (0:35 per game): Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets (0:32).

Granted, Pavel Datsyuk didn't play shorthanded in some of his Selke years, based on how his coach wished to deploy him. But that's not because he couldn't be effective in the role; can the same be said of Karlsson?

When I supported Mike Green's candidacy in 2008-09 — his 31 goals being more impressive than Karlsson's points, by the way — I supported a player that averaged 2:28 TOI shorthanded.

(For an interesting take on penalty killing and the Norris, head here.)

As for Karlsson's record-setting offensive output … well, Tyler Dellow's dissection of Karlsson's assists was also on my mind at the time of the latest vote.

So Karlsson's not in my top three now, but undoubtedly will be. He's earned the right to be considered a finalist. Winning the Norris is a another matter. Not now, at least for me; but perhaps as he rounds out his game, he'll win a Norris down the line. And then another.

Three takes on Karlsson for Norris. Daniel Friedman of The Fischler Report writes:

However, the Norris Trophy needs to be handed out to a defenseman who's impressed at both ends of the ice—someone like Shea Weber (my pick) or Nicklas Lidstrom. That isn't to undermine Karlsson's accomplishments, but he is not the best all-around blueliner in the NHL.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Mike Green and Lubomir Visnovsky both had tremendously productive seasons and, even so, failed to capture the Norris. There's more to it than offensive statistics, and as was the case with Green and Visnovsky, the same logic can and should be applied to Karlsson.

Moundd of High Heels and Hockey writes:

Everyone with their ear to the ground in the hockey world knows that the Norris Trophy is perhaps the most "reputation-based" NHL-award around. With names like Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, and obviously Nicklas Lidstrom knocking on the door, Karlsson will have to contend with some of the most well respected and revered defensemen in the NHL. But if reputation is cast aside, and the voters choose the most deserving candidate — with their minds and not their hearts — then Erik Karlsson will be the 2011-12 Norris Trophy winner.

Reputation be damned. This is the year of the Karlsson.

Finally, check out The 6th Sens and their Karlsson for Norris post.

What say you? Will Erik Karlsson win the Norris?

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