In the Norris Trophy race, Quinn Hughes and Erik Karlsson are battling history as well as each other
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
8 months ago
During his club’s 6-5 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, Quinn Hughes recorded two goals and an assist while logging a team-high 28:33 of ice time. In fact, Hughes’ performance was the type that shouldn’t go unnoticed by the folks who will be voting on the Norris Trophy for the NHL’s top defenceman.
With 72 points in 70 games on the season, the Canucks’ cornerstone defenceman has taken sole possession of second in league-wide scoring among defenders, trailing only San Jose Sharks star Erik Karlsson.
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Karlsson, who many consider the heavy favourite to win the trophy, has experienced a renaissance season despite playing on a basement-dwelling Sharks squad. Through 74 games, Karlsson has tallied 22 goals and 69 assists, good enough for an otherworldly point total of 91 — 19 higher than Hughes’ 72.
But with the way his season has gone, Hughes deserves serious consideration for the Norris himself.
We’ve already broken down how remarkable Hughes’ season has been. How a week ago, when he became the first defenceman since 93-94 to record consecutive 60-assist seasons, Hughes had already shattered multiple Canucks franchise records at the tender age of 23.
The gap between Hughes and the rest of the NHL’s defencemen is much closer – only three points separate him from New Jersey’s Dougie Hamilton and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey – and that gap may even become narrower as the final stretch of the NHL regular season is played out over the coming weeks. None of them might have the time to catch Karlsson’s point totals, but it might not end up mattering.
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And herein lies the problem. History is on neither Hughes’s nor Karlsson’s side.
Since the NHL began awarding the Norris in 1954, the award has gone to a defenceman on a non-playoff team only once; the Rangers’ Adam Fox in the COVID-shortened 2021 season. And, as far as comparables go, even Fox’s win has the asterisk of coming after a 56-game, divisional play-only schedule.
And if you’re thinking a 20-point lead on the next-best defender makes for a guaranteed winner, Karlsson has lost out in exactly this scenario before. In 2015-16, Karlsson finished a distant second in Norris voting to LA’s Drew Doughty, despite finishing with a whopping 31(!) more points.
The key difference? Doughty’s Kings made the playoffs, and Karlsson’s Senators didn’t.
For either one of Karlsson or Hughes to win the honours this season would be an unprecedented victory. If history is any indicator, Hamilton might actually be the likeliest candidate as the third-leading scorer on the playoff-bound Devils.
A lot has changed since 2016, including NHL awards voters’ reliance on stats like plus/minus, an aspect that played a crucial role in Karlsson’s runner-up finish as well. But for the older media guard that’s still submitting NHL awards ballots, Hughes’ +18 would show a clear edge in that department compared to Karlsson’s -16.
The odds of such a stat playing a key factor today is extremely doubtful. But has the way people vote changed enough for two defenders to transcend the records of their losing teams? For both of these elite defenders, the answer should be yes.
Hughes himself admitted that due to not playing for a winning team, it’s probably going to be difficult for him to win the award itself, but also hinted at the fact that he’s right there with the NHL’s best defencemen. And in that, Hughes is certainly correct.
If Hughes continues at his torrid late-season pace, then his chances of being recognized as one of the league’s top three defencemen will only grow. Regardless of whether Hughes can give Erik Karlsson a real run in Norris voting, both deserve a legitimate chance to win. No matter how much their teams are losing.
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