An interesting race is unfolding for the Norris Trophy this season because former winner Chris Pronger is sidelined with injury. Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, who had looked like he might step into the Norris discussion earlier this season, also is injured. Despite their absence, the race is again shaping up to be a tight one with no clear front-runner. Here’s how we handicap the race as we hit the second third of the season.
Chara was out of action this week but only on a day-to-day basis. That’s why we like the former defenseman of the year and captain of last season's Stanley Cup champs to lead the Norris charge at this point in the season. Like many of the Bruins, Chara started slowly -- GM Peter Chiarelli prefers to talk in terms of Stanley Cup haze as opposed to hangover -- but the defenseman has returned to form.
So have the Bruins, who have vaulted to the top of the Northeast Division and are in the hunt for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Sometimes there is a tendency to overlook Chara because in the past he hasn’t produced the offensive numbers that some of the other top defenders have. But Chara’s 19 points are more than respectable, and he has four power-play goals, which place him among the league leaders among defensemen. Chara is plus-18 while playing big minutes against the best opposition. What is impressive about Chara’s high level of play is that we’ve seen other Norris winners take a step back, especially after a Cup win. Duncan Keith struggled the season after winning the Norris in 2010, for instance. Not so with Chara.
“He just keeps doing what he’s always done,” Chiarelli told ESPN.com this week. “His game is just so steady and so predictable. That’s part of the attraction for 'Z,’” he said. Same old, same old? Good enough for us.
It’s been an up-and-down season for the Predators, but they seem to have turned a corner and are again back in the top eight in the Western Conference. As per usual, it’s their captain, Shea Weber, who has been the catalyst of good things happening in the Music City. Weber is near the top of all major statistical components among defensemen with six goals, four power-play goals, 21 points and a plus-14 rating. He is averaging 26:12 a night in ice time. But perhaps more impressive is that Weber’s defensive game and leadership abilities continue to evolve and mature. A Norris Trophy nominee last season, Weber is on a collision course to earn a place on the final ballot again.
Girardi has emerged as a force along the Rangers' blue line in the absence of Marc Staal and has been a leader on one of the top teams in the NHL during the first third of the season. Girardi leads all NHLers in average ice time at 27:33 a night and has produced a surprising amount of offense with three goals and 12 points. He is plus-6, but as with all elite players, intangibles are what have vaulted Girardi into the Norris Trophy discussion. Although the Rangers' blue line has been depleted by injury, they continue to boast the third-best goals against per game in the league, and Girardi’s presence is a key reason.
You have to like how Brian Campbell has embraced a leadership role with the remade Panthers. His play has sparked what has been a stellar first 30 games for the Southeast Division-leading Panthers. Campbell is averaging 26:42 a night in ice time, third in the NHL. His 24 points are second among defensemen, and he’s plus-8.
GM Dale Tallon has nothing but good things to say about Campbell’s play and his importance to the team's instant chemistry, even though the Panthers added a bevy of new faces to their lineup in the offseason. One of the quiet benefits of Campbell’s work in Florida is how he’s helped Jason Garrison emerge as a top triggerman from the blue line. Garrison has nine goals, three more than the next-most-prolific goal scorer among NHL defensemen, and a lot of those goals are the product of sweet Campbell passes. For a guy who took more than his fair share of criticism in Chicago, Campbell has been worth every penny for the Panthers.
5. Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators
In many ways, the careers and fortunes of the two Nashville defensive pillars will be joined -- at least as long as they toil in Nashville. And although the longtime defensive partners play two different styles, their importance to the Preds and their overall value among NHL defensemen is a lot closer than perhaps some people would suggest. Suter, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July, is second among all NHLers in average ice time, and his 20 points are just one behind Weber's total. He is plus-11 and has three power-play goals. Suter exists somewhat in the shadow of the Predators’ captain, but he is vitally important to the big goals the Predators score.