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Breaking down the closest Norris Trophy race in recent memory

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This year's awards race presents a series of absolutes. Connor McDavid should be the unanimous choice for the Hart Trophy after breaking the 100-point barrier in just 53 games. Auston Matthews is well on his way to picking up the Rocket Richard Trophy without much competition. There have been several elite goaltending performances, but none better than Andrei Vasilevskiy, who should handily walk away with his second Vezina Trophy in three years.

The Norris Trophy race, however, ought to be the closest race of the 2020-21 awards cycle, and the closest race for the trophy itself in recent memory. In the absence of a clear-cut favorite, there are several strong candidates, reflective of the NHL's talent boom on the back end over the past few seasons.

Here, we explain our rationale for who should emerge victorious in an absolutely loaded field.

*All stats current as of May 11, all advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, unless stated otherwise

Adam Fox has been a beast all season on the Rangers blue line. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Adam Fox has been a beast all season on the Rangers blue line. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

New York Rangers sophomore Adam Fox presents the best statistical case for this year's Norris, with his 47 points leading all defenders. He also ranks second in power-play points among defensemen and has recorded a very strong 54.2 expected goals-for percentage. Logging nearly 25 minutes per night, Fox has become the prototypical workhouse blueliner every team aspires to have and is the very definition of what you'd want from a power-play quarterback.

Fox boasts outstanding vision at the point of attack, has an innate sense of when to join the rush and can go coast-to-coast without sacrificing much defensively. When it comes to improvisational ability at the blue line to generate more shooting space for New York's forwards, Fox is only matched by Samuel Girard this season.

He isn't just an offensive dynamo, either. Fox ranks second among all defensemen in takeaways (Florida's MacKenzie Weegar, who is wildly underrated, ranks first), routinely breaks up opposing chances and isn't hesitant to sacrifice his body to do so. It has become so trite and commonplace to recognize that the Norris shouldn't be viewed as the award for best offensive defenseman, even if the vote often breaks that way. During his breakout 2021 season, Fox has been arguably the league's best defender while becoming one of the league's most dangerous offensive talents.

By minimal fault of his own, Fox's case for the Norris isn't ironclad. Since the trophy was first awarded in 1953-54, no Norris winner has ever missed the playoffs and Fox will have to watch this year's festivities on television.

Is Fox several standard deviations better than his competition? Well, no, and figuring out how to reward Fox for his individual brilliance in a year where the Rangers showed promise but ultimately feel a year away from inflicting serious damage on their opponents, is perhaps the challenge for the electorate. And with several other strong performances to consider, this could get real messy at the top.

Sam Girard should've been the winner if not for a late injury, and he was the most fun to watch, too

It is perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I was of the firm belief that Colorado's Samuel Girard should've been the Norris winner this year in large part due to his sustained excellence while Cale Makar, another leading candidate in his own right, missed 12 games. Girard was among the league's very best defensemen all year prior to suffering an undisclosed injury against the San Jose Sharks on May 1.

This component won't matter as much to the electorate — and really, nor should it — but Girard was the most fun defender to watch this season and that at least counts for something. Girard and Fox were in a different tier in one regard: their ability to make improvisational reads at the blue line to generate space for their teammates in the offensive zone. In a similar vein to P.K. Subban before him, Girard's spin-o-rama was one of the 2021 season's signature moves and it also was one of its most effective, too.

As seen in the clip above, the spin-o-rama takes up so much attention from the opposing winger and leaves a pool of supporting defenders completely flat-footed. In the first clip, poor Phil Kessel gets his lunch taken from him as Girard's spin-o-rama completely fractures Arizona's defensive scheme.

"He’s just so confident with the puck and can elude guys so well," Makar said of Girard to The Athletic's Peter Baugh. "There’s no question in my mind: He’s a top, elite D-man in the league."

Girard posted five goals and 31 points with an outstanding 60.52 expected goals-for percentage and the Avalanche did not miss a beat when Makar went down, as the 22-year-old proved he's more than capable of serving as a genuine No. 1 option on a leading Stanley Cup contender if afforded the opportunity. It's too bad that a late injury effectively nullified his chances outright, but the Avalanche are in good hands with three elite defenders to rely upon.

Splitting votes between Colorado's terrific trio

Colorado has an embarrassment of riches on its blue line and the three-headed monster of Makar, Girard and Devon Toews will likely split votes. Makar is the superior option of the three when healthy, and after returning to the lineup he's played the best hockey of his young career. Toews has the least impressive statistical case of the trio when you look at his raw output, but he's posted an astronomical 62.18 expected goals-for percentage while nearing 25 minutes per game. The fact it only cost two second-round picks to acquire him from the Islanders last fall feels even more absurd than it did then.

Makar has posted 43 points in 42 games, may have the highest offensive ceiling in the NHL among defensemen, and has posted an excellent 61.16 expected goals-for percentage. The award is for a complete body of work and really the only argument against him is the time he missed and that Girard and Toews ensured Colorado remained both the analytics darling of the league and a hyper-paced on-ice nightmare for West Division opponents. All things considered, Makar's impossibly high ceiling and production when healthy might make him the choice among Avalanche players, but there's a strong case for all three defenders, and the ballot may be split as a result.

The case for Dougie Hamilton

Carolina's transition offense is so dangerous and Hamilton — along with teammate Jaccob Slavin — is the central reason why. Hamilton is brilliant at defusing high-danger chances and generating quality offense for his team in a single sequence, and like his peers listed here, inherently understands when to join the rush.

Hamilton recorded 10 goals and 42 points in 55 games with a 52.30 expected goals-for percentage. His body of work is all the more impressive considering he fractured his fibula in January 2020. Prior to his 2020 injury, he was arguably the leading Norris candidate and is once again near the top of the race this year. If team success factors into the vote — again, it shouldn't all too much but it's a realistic consideration — then Hamilton's efforts in leading the Hurricanes to the hotly contested Central Division title ought to be rewarded.

There are no holes in Hamilton's game. He is one of the league's most consistent producers from the blue line, is sound defensively and he's played a leading role on a Cup contender. His workload isn't as heavy as Fox, Toews, Makar or Girard's but he's no slouch, ranking 36th overall in ice time per game. Hamilton has the strongest overall case to counter Fox, based on his consistency, overall production and contributions to an elite team.

Victor Hedman will likely win, but he shouldn't

At the midseason checkpoint, Victor Hedman was the favorite to capture the Norris Trophy for the second time in his career. Hedman's play has tailed off significantly during the second half of the year and if he were to win this year, it would be based on his well-earned reputation combined with his strong body of work during the first half of the campaign.

It's not without reason, either. Hedman is playing through an injury that will require surgery in the offseason, Sportsnet's Chris Johnston reported on Saturday, and has missed Tampa Bay's past two games as a result.

Hedman has posted a 51.31 expected goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 — the smallest share of expected goals the Lightning have posted with him on the ice since the 2012-13 season. There are still some arguments in Hedman's favor, namely that he ranks fourth in the NHL with 24 power-play points, the most among all defensemen. Hedman's declining form in some ways encapsulated Tampa Bay's crawl to the finish line, and though it's almost certainly related to injury, he simply hasn't been an elite contributor at 5-on-5 for large stretches of the season.

The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun reported that 22 of the 31 coaches would've voted for Hedman. Reputation certainly goes a long way and while it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that hockey writers often know better, this feels like some coaches mailed their ballot in at the halfway mark of the season.

So, what's the verdict?

1. Adam Fox

2. Dougie Hamilton

3. Cale Makar

4. Samuel Girard

5. Devon Toews

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