Welcome to THW’s 2021-22 Norris Trophy tracker, an ever-shifting ranking of the NHL’s top defensemen to be updated monthly throughout the entirety of the regular season. The NHL’s regular-season schedule has now concluded, meaning that we have a complete set of data points to work with to crown the league’s best defenseman this season.
Before we set out to the final list, a few qualifying criteria should be established ahead of time to avoid potential gripes with the order. As always, these are subjective rankings meant to initiate discussion, so feel free to disagree (civilly) in the comments and offer your own picks.
First, five-on-five play is highly valued in these rankings, as power-play deployment greatly skews rates of production and fails to present a coherent evaluation of a defenseman’s overall impact. Next, a player’s reputation is largely ignored as an annual trophy should not be a quasi-lifetime achievement award; this season’s results matter most, but special cases can be made as it’s still early to make sweeping conclusions. Last, advanced statistics are critical tools in moving past superficial analysis (looking solely at boxscore stats, for example), and form the basis of reasoning for these rankings. With that being said, let’s dig into the final rankings for the 2021-22 season.
Note: Defensemen must have played in at least 75% of their team’s total games to qualify for the top five.
April Rankings: 1. Cale Makar, 2. Roman Josi, 3. Victor Hedman, 4. Adam Fox, 5. Charlie McAvoy
5. Adam Fox, New York Rangers
2021-22 Stats: 78 GP – 11 G – 63 A – 74 PTS – 23:54 ATOI
In isolation, Adam Fox‘s 2021-22 season has been stellar, and entirely worthy of what would be his second-consecutive Norris win. Unfortunately for the young New York Rangers’ rearguard, this year’s field is among the strongest in recent memory. Still, there’s praise to be lavished on the American given the level of his offensive output while driving the Rangers’ attacking play.
Fox’s 74 points in 78 games put him fourth in scoring among defensemen, and a slight uptick over last year’s production was enough to set career-highs in goals (11), assists (63), and points. Even in the midst of an offensive jump, the third-year blueliner responsibly fulfilled his defensive duties to buoy his club on both sides of the puck.
With Fox on the ice during 5v5 play this season, the Rangers took 51.9% of all shots (SF%), owned a 50.4% share of chance quality (xGF%), and scored 54.4% of the goals (GF%). Although those results are admirable on their face, his impact relative to his teammates clearly illustrates his elevated role within the Rangers’ game plan. New York was plus-4 shots per-60-minutes and better when Fox played, compared to when he was off the ice. His relative numbers were the best among the team’s defensemen this season, and his relative xGF% (plus-4.2) ranked 22nd among qualified defenders (minimum 300 5v5 minutes played).
The Rangers’ underwhelming 5v5 play held Fox back compared to his Norris competition, as the other players on this list either posted stronger raw or relative impacts. Still, he enjoyed a memorable campaign and should only continue to improve. Given that two of the other players on this are moving towards their mid-30s, he should figure prominently in the Norris discussion for the next decade and change.
4. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
2021-22 Stats: 78 GP – 10 G – 46 A – 56 PTS – 24:39 ATOI
For the first few seasons of his career, Charlie McAvoy has carried a reputation for sparkling defensive play. That aspect of his game remained intact this season, with the Boston Bruins’ top defenseman leading all blueliners in shot-share (61.8 SF%) and expected goals (62.8%) at 5v5. Those impeccable possession rates are driven in large part by how few chances his opponents are able to generate. He ranks second in expected goals against per-60 (xGA/60) and ninth in shots against per-60 (SA/60). He doesn’t fit the archetype of a physically imposing shutdown defender, but he uses his on-ice awareness to neutralize plays before they can unfold.
Fairly or not, what’s cost him greater leaguewide recognition is his lack of eye-popping statistics. The American blueline ace is still far from emulating Bruins legend Ray Bourque, but he’s taken a considerable step forward in his offensive game. While playing in 78 games this season – the most of his career – McAvoy also set career-highs in goals (10), assists (46), and points (56). Of his 46 helpers, 30 were of the secondary variety (fourth among all defensemen) which are less noteworthy than primary assists, but they still show an increased focus on the attacking element of his game.
Those who remain skeptical of placing McAvoy higher up in the NHL’s defensive hierarchy often point to the presence of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand as a strike against his case. While it’s true that those two two-way stars help drive the Bruins’ engine, the defenseman still drives possession without his All-Star teammates in tow. He played in almost 800 5v5 minutes without either of Bergeron or Marchand, but Boston’s results remained pristine. McAvoy garnered 56.9% of all shots, 56.7% of all goals, and 57.9% of xGF without the pair, proving that he’s more than a product of his linemates.
At only 24 years of age, McAvoys’s best years are still ahead of him and the Bruins should be in good hands even as the pillars behind their recent success approach retirement. If Bergeron retires next season and McAvoy continues to put up exemplary results, his Norris campaign could be revved into high gear as soon as 2022-23.
3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
2021-22 Stats: 82 GP – 20 G – 65 A – 85 PTS – 25:05 ATOI
With the heights that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman has already hit in his Hall-of-Fame worthy career, you’d be unlikely to predict the 31-year-old managing to reach yet another gear. He potted 20 goals for the first time in his career (third among defensemen) and set career benchmarks in assists (65) and points (85). Even in an increased NHL scoring environment, those numbers are enough to thrust the Swedish blueliner’s name into the thick of the Norris conversation.
Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower (eighth in goals-per-game) means Hedman has plenty of weapons to help juice his scoring numbers. Two of his three most prominent teammates in that department – Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – both missed significant time this season, absent for 35 and 16 games respectively. He elevated his game in response and makes a strong case for winning the second Norris Trophy of his career.
Hedman produced solid possession impacts this season while juggling an increased role in creating the Lightning’s offence. Among defensemen with at least 300 minutes played at 5v5 this season, his 54.1% share of xGF (42nd) and 53.8% claim of SF (41st) are indicative of an elite player capable of driving play at both ends while tasked with a demanding workload. With 2056 minutes played in all situations, only Brent Burns played more cumulative ice time than the Swedish blueliner this season.
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Although Hedman’s crafted a Norris-worthy campaign, the incredible play of his counterparts has capped how many plaudits have been thrown his way. Even so, it’s arguable that no defensemen have been as consistent in recent memory. With the announcement of the 2021-22 Norris Trophy finalists, Hedman is a finalist for a sixth consecutive season. It’s the first such streak since Nicklas Lidstrom also accomplished the feat between the 1997-98 and 2002-03 seasons. No NHL accolade should be viewed as a lifetime achievement award and I don’t the Norris as such in my rankings, but his consistency is a marvel in what is becoming a young man’s game.
2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
2021-22 Stats: 80 GP – 23 G – 73 A – 96 PTS – 25:33 ATOI
Where to start with Roman Josi? Not only did his 96 points this season eviscerate his previous career-high, but they represent the 19th-highest-scoring season by a defenseman in NHL history. His production is unmatched in the 21st century, with only Phil Housley’s 97 points besting Josi’s mark in the past 30 years. It’s not as though he inflated his numbers through power-play usage either, as his 59 even-strength points rank 12th all-time at the position. Given that the Nashville Predators only ranked 12th in goals-per-game this season, his offensive eruption is all the more remarkable.
As much as it pains me to say it, hockey is still played at both ends of the ice and Josi’s case is weakened by less pronounced defensive contributions. The Predators controlled 51% of shots and 51.9% of chance quality with him on the ice at 5v5 which are respectable marks, but not ones indicative of someone dominating at both ends. Some may argue that his team strength shouldn’t be held against him, but I see that as more of an argument for his Hart Trophy candidacy, rather than whether he was the best overall defenseman.
Josi also played less than half a minute on the penalty kill per game, a much lighter workload than the other candidates. Further, he faced quality competition less often, only playing 28.96% of his 5v5 minutes against other teams’ top lines (103rd among qualified defensemen). It’s unfair to expect him to excel defensively while also being singlehandedly tasked with driving the team’s offence from the back, but it figures into his overall argument as a complete defender. Still, he did manage to complete 48 takeaways while not taking an inordinate number of penalties, good for 16th at his position. Don’t take this as a slight against him, as he’s one of the most offensively gifted blueliners of his generation.
Like with many of the names mentioned in these rankings, Josi’s efforts would be enough to win the Norris in any other season. He has already been awarded the Norris once before in 2019-20, so it’s not as though his brilliance is yet to be formally recognized. At 31 years of age, this could be one of his last legitimate opportunities to win the award before exiting his prime and could sway a voting bloc which often makes decisions based more on sentimental reasons than objective ones.
1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
2021-22 Stats: 77 GP – 28 G – 58 A – 86 PTS – 25:40 ATOI
After being nipped for the Norris Trophy last season, Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche is my pick to be named the NHL’s best defenseman for the 2021-22 season. He cooled off after briefly flirting with Paul Coffey’s single-season goals record but still finished the season with 28 goals and 86 points, good for second in the defensive scoring race. His 28 tallies rank 29th all-time and were the most since Burns (29 in 2016-17) and Mike Green (31 in 2008-09). Those numbers are just another reminder that we could be witnessing the emergence of one of the NHL’s best-ever offensive blueliners.
Even with his penchant for joining the attack, he does not neglect the defensive side of the puck. When Makar takes the ice at 5v5, the Avalanche account for 55.2% of SF (24th among defensemen), 57.1% of xGF (14th), and 64.7% of GF (fifth). It’s not as though he’s being sheltered either, as he played the sixth-most minutes per game in all situations, including over a minute per night while shorthanded. In addition, he played 29.31% of his 5v5 minutes against top competition, the 11th-most difficult deployment this season and significantly more demanding compared to Josi.
Makar’s 26 penalty minutes all season is remarkable considering his heavy usage in all situations (sixth in minutes per game). He finished the season with 49 takeaways – 15th among all defensemen – demonstrating that brawn is not necessary to be a defensive force. His hockey sense and skating give him the ability to cut down opponents’ time and space and create opportunities going the other way.
Makar’s teammates are undoubtedly better than Josi’s and I won’t attempt to argue otherwise, but consider how infrequently they played together this season. Gabriel Landeskog (31 games), Nathan MacKinnon (17), Devon Toews (16), and Nazem Kadri (11) all missed more than 10 games this year. Other than Filip Forsberg (13 games missed), the Predators’ primary offensive talents stayed healthy through the regular season. The discrepancy still exists of course, but it’s not as cut and dry as it may appear at first glance. The question remains, how do the voters see it?
2021-22 Norris Trophy Honourable Mentions
Here are five additional honourable mentions – in no particular order – to round out the final edition of the top 10: Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars); Devon Toews (Colorado Avalanche); Kris Letang (Pittsburgh Penguins); Aaron Ekblad (Florida Panthers); and Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes).
Josi & Makar Debate Defines 2021-22 Norris Trophy Race
The NHL’s voting group has a tendency to reward players who may not have had the best season, but may have been slighted in previous campaigns or are approaching the end of their prime years. Makar had a case for winning the Norris over Fox last season and has just as strong of a case compared to Josi this season. At only 23, he should earn many Norris wins in his future, but that shouldn’t preclude the voters from honouring his efforts in 2021-22.
Let me know in the comments if I’ve overlooked any worthy candidates, and check back once the actual nominees and winners are announced to further critique my selections. Happy playoffs everyone!
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.