Puck Daddy - NHL

The latest USA Today power rankings are out for all 30 teams and for each individual award; the latter ranking indicating, at the moment, that most of the trophies have clear frontrunners at the moment.

Steven Stamkos(notes) of the Tampa Bay Lightning is doing battle with Daniel Sedin(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks, but his lead in the goals race and the surprising season for the Bolts put him squarely in the lead for the Hart. Tim Thomas(notes) might have actually been given the Vezina about three weeks ago in a private ceremony. The Calder is down to Logan Couture(notes) and Jeff Skinner(notes), with Corey Crawford(notes) making a late charge.

Then there's the Norris, which has a familiar name at the top of the ranking by the USA Today panelists (including yours truly):

Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) of the Detroit Red Wings is second in scoring for defensemen with 50 points in 63 games, right behind Keith Yandle(notes) of the Phoenix Coyotes (54 in 65). He's vying for his seventh Norris Trophy, which he'd win as a 41-year-old this summer.

As you can see, there's support for Yandle and Kris Letang(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has been a revelation this season. The question isn't whether either of them can win the Norris ... but rather if Lidstrom can possibly lose it this season.

Last week, John Kreiser of NHL.com handicapped the Norris race and declared Lidstrom the winner as we headed into March:

Maybe 40 really is the new 30. There's certainly no sign that Lidstrom, now 40, has any slippage in his game.

All he's done in the first year of his fifth decade is put up 12 goals and 48 points in 60 games, second among all defensemen. He's done all that while taking only seven minor penalties all season -- only one more penalty than he's had goals on the power play. He's still a minute-muncher (23:37 ice time per game) who plays effectively in all situations for the Central Division-leading Detroit Red Wings.

On top of that, he's also faced a higher quality of competition during even strength play (0.124) than Yandle (0.027) or Letang (0.022) according to Behind The Net's numbers. (Here's everything you ever wanted to know about QUALCOM but were afraid to ask.)

Letang is an interesting contender for the Norris, in the sense that he's gotten much more exposure on television than Yandle (keep in mind that the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes on the Norris) and is having a hell of a season for the Penguins. He was given the chance to replace Sergei Gonchar's(notes) contributions on the blue line, and he's gone above and beyond.

From the Post-Gazette's glowing tribute to Letang yesterday:

For all the many individual honors the Penguins have won over the years, there has been only one to claim the Norris Trophy: Randy Carlyle in 1981. He was a good, not great defenseman, who contributed to a generally superb power play that year and produced 83 points.

What Letang is doing is different, and that is why he now is mentioned casually in the same sentence as Detroit's brilliant Nicklas Lidstrom.

"To me, it's him and Nick Lidstrom as runaways for the Norris, really," said Boston right winger Mark Recchi(notes), once Letang's teammate with the Penguins. "They play against tough lines all the time. You look around, and the other defensemen with big numbers don't play against those tough lines. Letang and Orpik do that every night."

Count Lidstrom among the admirers, too. "He's very good with the puck, a good skater, and he competes out there," Detroit's six-time Norris winner said. "He's also very good at reading plays, getting up in the play and moving around, whether it's on the power play at the blue line or being part of the rush. He's a very good defenseman."

As the Atlanta Thrashers have fallen apart and Dustin Byfuglien(notes) has toppled down the defensemen scoring charts, Yandle had moved into the scoring lead and among the contenders for the Norris. But because he plays for the Coyotes, his candidacy doesn't have the recognition of Lidstrom's or Letang's. How is he faring these days?

From Five For Howling, after the Coyotes lost to the Chicago Blackhawks over the weekend:

Keith Yandle continues to play like a Norris trophy winner in the offensive zone.  However, his play in the neutral and defensive zones still leaves something to be desired at times.  Five giveaways doesn't cut it.

Jim Neveau of The Hockey Writers evaluated Yandle's Norris creds a few weeks ago:

If a betting man were to take a look at it, they would probably say that if Yandle can be in the lead of the points race among defensemen at the end of the season (and if his plus-minus doesn't plunge faster than a bowling ball dropped off a balcony) will be among the three finalists vying for the award in Las Vegas in June. 

At any rate, Keith is establishing himself as one of the best young offensive defensemen in the league, and he has been a huge shot in the arm to a Phoenix offense that hasn't exactly been known for their prowess in that department.

I went Yandle, Lidstrom, Letang on my ballot for this ranking. The Yotes D-man plays 24:14 a night and I've been impressed every time I've watched him. Perhaps his offensive output has me dazzled a bit, but I was fine with putting him at the top. 

Granted, he's not used in many shorthanded situations and isn't the defender Lidstrom is, which is why I'd rank them No. 1 and No. 1-A at this point, with Letang close behind. the fact that Byfuglien didn't play shorthanded was troublesome, too; it's more important for the Norris than the Selke for some reason, at least to me. 

What does your Norris ballot look like?

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