He’s slow. He’s old. He’s outdated in today’s NHL. He’s protected by the Boston Bruins’ defensive system, and elite players, rather than its backbone. It’s all size, no skill. He’s a liability, in his own end and on the power play.
These are things frequently mentioned by the ‘Anyone But Zdeno Chara’ crowd when discussion the Norris Trophy. Many of them are shared in the comments on Dan Rosen’s post on NHL.com extolling the virtues of Chara as the 2013-14 Norris Trophy winner, which is a correct call that’s backed up by everything from fancy stats to the human eye.
However, what makes Chara special are the things he does that can't be measured on the score sheet. He's a possession machine despite playing the majority of his shifts against the opposition's top line on a nightly basis and starting more than half of his shifts in the defensive zone. Simply put, when Chara is on the ice, the Bruins usually have the puck.
Here’s what he’s getting at: Chara has a plus-1.7 percent relative corsi ratings, which essentially means the Bruins average 1.7 percent more shots than do their opponents when he’s on the ice. Not a massive number in context – Selke winner Patrice Bergeron is at a plus-9.6 percent – but in line with Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks (plus-2.0) and better than Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators (minus-0.6).
The chart below (via Extra Skater) illustrates that Chara is the only defenseman with an offensive-zone start percentage below 50, a TotTM percentage QoC of at least 29.5 and a 5v5 CF percentage over 54. Basically, when Chara is on the ice, Boston controls possession and transitions from its own zone to the attacking zone consistently (all against top competition, too).
Chara, Keith and Weber are the top three candidates established by Bob McKenzie’s informal poll of 16 NHL head coaches, 5 of whom put Keith No. 1 with Chara second (4 first-place votes) and Weber third (3 first-place votes).
Keith’s candidacy is built on 61 points in 79 games, second to Erik Karlsson’s ridiculous 72 points in 79 games. Keith is a plus-22, plays 24:38 per game and is undoubtedly one of the best all-round defenseman this season.
Conversely, the biggest knock on Chara’s candidacy is his lack of offense this season: 39 points total, in danger of having his lowest points-per-game 82-game season since 2002.
Some of this has been attributed to a lack of power play scoring, which isn’t necessarily true: His previous two 82-game campaigns saw him with 18 and 15 points on the power play. It’s his assists that are down dramatically: 22 this season in 76 games, after the lockout season saw his assists per game plummet from 0.51 to 0.25.
Offense is a tricky thing when it comes to the Norris. There are those who minimize its importance for an award to a defensive player, but the award is for the “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” Offense shouldn’t be the determining factor, but it should be one.
That said, Chara’s offensive numbers are fine. Far from a disqualifier.
Where he has a distinct advantage over Keith is in usage. He’s third in the NHL in facing the toughest scorers from the opposing team; Keith is 74th. Now, it’s nearly a two-percentage-point difference (27.4-25.7), and that might seem negligible, but the bottom line is that Chara sees the tougher opponents while Keith gives way to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, who have the majority of defensive zone starts. Ditto on the PK, where Chara plays 3:11 per game while Keith plays 2:23. (Boston, by the way, averages roughly one more minor per game than Chicago.)
You can argue that it’s not Keith’s fault Joel Quenneville decides to use him this way, that it’s out of his control.
You know, like standing at 6-foot-9 is out of other players' control.
The ballots aren’t out yet, but I’m leaning Chara with Keith second. I believe Chara is, even at this stage of his career, by far the best defenseman in the NHL and the one of the only ones you actually have to game-plan around. Go ahead, call that injured pylon we saw in the Stanley Cup Final the actual Zdeno Chara; it probably means you haven’t seen much of him this season.
Weber is getting accolades around the league for having had an outstanding season, perhaps his best, and the Predators have sent out a sizzle reel touting it:
I haven’t figured out the third defenseman on the ballot yet.
Weber’s there. So are Alex Pietrangelo and Drew Doughty. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is right there too.
The one I can’t decide on: Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames.
The Flames average 10.5 percent more shots than do their opponents when Giordano is on the ice. He’s third in the NHL in “goals for percentage,” meaning the Flames score 12.1 percent more goals than do their opponents when he’s on the ice. He’s seventh in the league in qualify of competition vs. opposing forwards. He has 46 points on the season, averaging 25:13 minutes per game.
Here’s the rub: 62 games.
He’ll end with 64 on the season, which is over three quarters of the year, but is that enough?
Consider Alex Steen, seemingly disqualified from the Hart conversation due to his concussion, has played 65 games. Of the top 20 defensemen in scoring, only one is currently at fewer than 73 games: Victor Hedman, who has 72 at the moment, eight more than Giordano.
The numbers are all there for the Calgary Flames’ defense; but is the sample size a disqualifier?
s/t to Extra Skater, the best stats site on the web, for all of it.