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Thursday, March 25, 2004
Norris or not, Wings and Avs feature best 'D'

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

For Rob Blake, the Norris Trophy standard is simple.

If you're a coach, and you can imagine virtually every possible close-game scenario in the final minute, whether the primary concern is getting the puck in the other net or keeping it out of yours, and you keep coming back to wanting the same defenseman out there, he's worthy of Norris Trophy consideration.

Mathieu Schneider
Mathieu Schneider may take votes away from Nick Lidstrom, and vice versa.
He might be one of many on the initial list, but he would be on it.

It helps, of course, if the defenseman in question is with a solid team and isn't out there because at least four of the "D" should be playing for the ECHL's Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, and not in the NHL.

"Nicklas Lidstrom has been the best on both sides of the puck the past few years," Blake said in the Colorado Avalanche practice rink dressing room Wednesday. "If you have a power play with 30 seconds left, you want him out there, or if you have a faceoff in your own zone with 30 seconds left, you want him on the ice. It's tough to win the Norris Trophy, and it's about what someone brings to the ice every shift."

The abundance of elite and in many cases Norris consideration-worthy defensemen -- albeit, both past and present -- is one of the many subplots that get overlooked at times in the buildups of the Colorado-Detroit rivalry, which resumes with a barn-to-barn series at Denver tonight and Detroit Saturday.

(Unlike the old days, though, the teams will not ride the same train to the second half of the back-to-back, so fights won't break out in the dining car.)

Colorado has Blake and Adam Foote, who never will make the final cut, but represents the type of physical, defense-first player at the position who probably should get more consideration. Under Tony Granato, he has jumped in the play more and has 19 goals over the last two seasons.

Blake was the Norris winner in 1998, with the Kings. A seven-game absence from the Colorado lineup with a hairline fracture in his left leg -- a baseball player, of course, would have been on the injured list for six weeks -- shouldn't rule him out. At one point, he seemed the leader in the clubhouse, but the injury and the fact that he has only two goals since mid-January probably will hurt.

Foote does see enough time on the power play, and has five of his eight goals there. And he and partner Karlis Skrastins usually are out against the opposing top line, which frees up Blake to better display his versatility.

Detroit has Lidstrom, the Norris winner the past three seasons in a row -- and the runnerup the three seasons before that. He again has illustrated that a calm demeanor and something less than a lay-the-lumber approach can gain widespread respect, both from his peers and from the writers who vote for the award. The tape-to-tape passes, the efficiency of knowing when to turn on either the jets or just enough aggression, and even his leadership, all remain part of the best package in the NHL.

Chris Chelios, who at times seems to have been on the Wisconsin campus with Alan Ameche or have grown up watching Tinker, Evers and Chance turn double plays for the Cubs, won the Norris in 1989, '93 and '96 -- in a run in which Ray Bourque, Brian Leetch and Chelios all were multiple-year winners.

Chelios definitely has slipped, but not to the point where he is a liability and probably will be back next season -- whenever that is -- under a reduced, winding-down deal.

NORRIS TROPHY
From NHL.com:

The James Norris Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association at the end of the regular season.

The James Norris Memorial Trophy was presented in 1953 by the four children of the late James Norris in memory of the former owner-president of the Detroit Red Wings.

The NHL awards ceremony will be held June 10 in Toronto and will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Derian Hatcher is a throw-in here, considering his absence for much of the season with the knee and (of late) shoulder injuries. Though he came close last season, he never is going to win the Norris. But despite some of the revisionist talk about his lack of mobility, the fact is he was one of the best in the game -- at least at what he does -- at Dallas and was a genuine coup for the Wings.

And then you get to Mathieu Schneider, the 34-year-old who has been so good this season, it might lead to some vote-splitting and even cost Lidstrom a few votes in the race. He will miss his third straight game tonight with a groin muscle-hip flexor injury, but it isn't a serious problem.

"You don't really hear his name as much, but he's had his best year by far," said Blake. "When I played with him at L.A., I really got to appreciate him. He moves the puck as well as anybody out there. And Detroit has the system that fits him. He can skate and jump in the play."

If there is a drawback to the Norris, it's that the Scott Stevens-types don't get more consideration. But that also is an acknowledgment of the hybrid skills so valued. Even Paul Coffey was so elite in his offensive talents in his heyday (yes, with great talent around him), it's hard to argue with the worthiness of the winners. The stay-at-home, physical defensemen have gotten speared in terms of being included on initial lists of consideration, but probably not in terms of actually winning the award.

"If you say the top defenseman, you have to have both those attributes," Blake said. "It's not just a solid offensive guy or a solid defensive guy. It's both."

Then again, if that were the case, the Devils' Scott Niedermayer would be an annual finalist. Instead, his superior skills are overshadowed by New Jersey's defense-first system, which has yielded him three Stanley Cups, a more than acceptable tradeoff by most everyone in the game.

Zdeno Chara
Ottawa's Zdeno Chara is a threat at both ends of the ice.
With the degree depending on Schneider's availability on Saturday at Detroit, the back-to-back set will be a Norris candidates' forum. There is no guarantee, of course, that either Blake or Lidstrom will win it. Sheldon Souray's remarkable comeback at Montreal, not to mention his play itself, is a great story for those willing to look past his recent month-long absence due to an MCL sprain. Leetch was the beacon for a terrible team with the Rangers, and has been terrific in his early weeks with the Leafs. Adrian Aucoin's marathon and varied work for the Islanders has been instrumental in keeping them in the playoff field. Niedermayer probably deserves to break through to the final three, and Bryan McCabe and Wade Redden should get looks.

At this point, though, Zdeno Chara probably should be the leading candidate. The huge Ottawa Senators' blueliner now is intimidating in virtually every definition of the term, and he has become one of the game's best. Blake and Lidstrom still are terrific, but voters need to have open minds about "new" candidates and diminishing the power of incumbency, so to speak.

And it should come down to: OK, who do you want out there?

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go."