Ranking the NHL's Norris Trophy contenders: Can anyone catch Erik Karlsson?

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson is having an offensive season for the ages but Adam Fox, Cale Makar and others loom as potential spoilers in the Norris race.

For the third consecutive season, the Norris Trophy is the only major NHL award that is still up for debate. Connor McDavid should be skating away with the Hart unanimously, Patrice Bergeron, Linus Ullmark and Jim Montgomery will be carrying the Selke, Vezina and Jack Adams, respectively, back to Boston, while Matty Beniers is the clear frontrunner for the Calder.

Once again, the Norris Trophy debate invites several candidates, in part due to the fact we have a vague notion about what the best defenseman actually looks like. Should the trophy go to the NHL’s best offensive defenseman or should the totality of their games be factored in?

Without further ado, here’s our breakdown of the Norris Trophy race.

Note: All stats current prior to games played on Wednesday, March 29.

Erik Karlsson looks like the frontrunner to take home the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes

We’ve grouped Burns and Slavin together as they both present similar cases, which is to be expected as one of the NHL’s most commonly-used pairings. Burns has been an all-around dynamo, whereas Slavin has earned a reputation as a human eraser on the back end.

Among the leading contenders, Slavin’s counting stats won’t move the needle. Six goals and 23 points in 67 games isn’t bad by any means, but there are probably some casual fans who still aren’t acquainted with the inner workings of his game. Slavin is perhaps the best 2-on-1 defender in the league and his innate ability to separate forwards from the puck makes him a headache to account for.

Burns and Slavin rank fifth and sixth, respectively, among all qualified defensemen in expected goals against per 60 (XGA/60). They have nearly identical possession numbers but it’s worth noting that there are degrees of separation, too: Burns ranks first in expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5, while Slavin ranks third — Calgary’s Chris Tanev is sandwiched between them.

Both players are inextricably linked to each other, but Burns separates from Slavin due to his offensive proficiency, posting 13 goals and 54 points in 73 games. It’s a renaissance season for Burns, but he’s allowed to tap into the full arsenal of his skill set because he has a safety valve like Slavin as his partner. It’s a mutually beneficial combination that might steer the Hurricanes all the way to the Stanley Cup.

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

Makar would be the runaway choice if you asked players, coaches, or general managers about which defenseman they’d take first. The reigning Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner has been an electrifying presence for the Avalanche and though the eye test doesn’t factor into this debate, Makar’s otherworldly speed has left the league’s press corps in awe.

Through 58 games, Makar has posted 17 goals and 66 points — his 1.16 points per game ranks second only to San Jose’s Erik Karlsson. He leads all players in average ice time, playing 26:18 per game, while ranking 16th in XGA/60 at 5-on-5. Colorado controls 56 percent of the expected goals when Makar’s on the ice at 5-on-5.

So why aren’t we higher on Makar? He’s only played 58 games and it’s a season-long award. Makar can top out at 67 games, which is a large enough sample. But considering that his primary competition for the award — Karlsson, Adam Fox, Rasmus Dahlin, Hampus Lindholm, Drew Doughty among them — haven’t missed a beat all season, Makar would need an unequivocal advantage over the field. We’re not ruling out another Conn Smythe Trophy but in a tight race, the time he missed works against him for the Norris.

Hampus Lindholm, Boston Bruins

Lindholm has been the best defenseman for the runaway juggernaut Bruins this season — yes, better than Charlie McAvoy. Lindholm may not have the same name recognition as others on this list, but he’s easily been one of the NHL’s best defenders this season.

Lindholm has been on the ice for 72 goals versus 33 against at 5-on-5, while the Bruins control just under 57 percent of the expected goals. Linus Ullmark may be running away with the Vezina, but it’s telling that the Bruins also have a ridiculous 94.45 save percentage when Lindholm is out there. It was always possible that Lindholm, the sixth overall pick in 2012, could tap into superstardom and he’s found a new gear since being traded from Anaheim in March 2022. Plus-minus isn’t nearly as valuable as it was once considered, but Lindholm leads the NHL at plus-46.

If you look at Lindholm’s counting stats — 10 goals, 49 points — you may get the erroneous impression that he functions as a top-pair defenseman rather than one of the NHL’s best defenders. Lindholm is calculated at picking his spots, but he’s also been encouraged to join the attack and when he does, he can create magic for the Bruins.

Lindholm ranks second among all defensemen in the most recent GSVA model provided by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, a catch-all statistic that takes usage rate into account.

Lindholm has been the perfect marriage of a scoring defenseman matched with elite, shutdown defensive play. In many respects, that’s exactly what the Norris Trophy should idealize. Is Lindholm the NHL’s single-best defenseman this year? We’ll see what the electorate thinks.

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

Dahlin is entering the prime of his career and he’s elevated his game to a different tier this season as he’s already smashed career-bests with 14 goals and 65 points in 69 games. The 2018 first-overall pick has gone under the radar in the past but with Dahlin leading the Sabres’ first serious bid for the postseason in recent memory, he’s amplified his game into the national conversation.

Buffalo forward Jordan Greenway has a unique perspective, squaring off against Dahlin as an opponent with the Minnesota Wild before joining the Sabres at the NHL trade deadline.

“Being on a different team and watching him, I swear you see a highlight of this guy every night, which is great. But now that I’ve spent some days with him on his team, I give him more credit because of the little things he does that you don’t see on a highlight tape that he does game in, game out. It’s been invaluable. He’s been great since I’ve been here and he’s been great since I haven’t been here, watching him from afar. The sky’s the limit for that guy.”

Dahlin has been perhaps slightly overrated as a defender this year: he ranks 81st in XGA/60 among all defenders, he’s been on the ice for 66 goals at 5-on-5 and the Sabres have an 89.31 on-ice save percentage when he’s out there. Although his offensive numbers are elite, he isn’t the single-best player in any particular category, so he’s worth being on the ballot but he’s not worthy of a first-place vote.

Adam Fox, New York Rangers

This race ultimately feels like a two-man race between Adam Fox and Karlsson. Fox, who won the award in 2021, ranks first in GSVA among all defensemen, while posting 11 goals and 67 points in 74 games. He’s still carrying a tremendous workload, averaging 24:12 per game, while the Rangers control nearly 55 percent of the expected goals when he’s on the ice at 5-on-5. It’s clear the Rangers dominate every facet of the game when Fox is overseeing the ice, as he’s been on for 64 goals versus 43 against at even strength.

Fox is an outstanding skater who is capable of joining the rush when needed and has once again been the primary engine of a Rangers team that could make another deep playoff run. He ranks fifth in the league in takeaways at 5-on-5 and still boasts a positive takeaway-versus-giveaway ratio.

The 25-year-old has adjusted to a new defense partner in Niko Mikkola — with mainstay Ryan Lindgren recovering from a shoulder injury — and his play remains elite. Fox is probably the best combination of elite offense and elite defense on this list. He ranks 48th in XGA/60, which isn’t as good as Slavin, Burns, Makar, Doughty and Lindholm but he’s faced top-caliber opponents every night and has excelled.

If there’s one thing holding Fox back from his second Norris, it’s the lack of “wow” factor, which is perhaps a reflection that we’ve taken him for granted. He’s been excellent in all facets of the game for a leading contender and is perhaps the ideal blend of offense, defense, volume logged and shutdown ability against elite competition among this year’s field.

Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

Karlsson is having an offensive season for the ages, leading all players in points at 5-on-5 — yes, all players, not just blueliners. More simply, Karlsson’s 22 goals and 91 points in 74 games would be considered elite in any era and he’s having one of the best seasons of his career. Karlsson is logging the third-most minutes per game at 25:46 for an abysmal Sharks team and virtually every player on the team has improved splits when he’s out there in support.

Karlsson has been in historic territory offensively and is country miles ahead of his peers in this regard. That’s only one part of the equation, though.

Karlsson has been terrible defensively. He’s been on the ice for a league-worst 82 goals at 5-on-5, while ranking 121st among all qualified defensemen in XGA/60. He’s turned the puck over 82 times, the second-worst mark in the NHL.

If Karlsson wins the Norris, it’ll be because of his exceptional offensive ability, as he’s in line to become the first defenseman with 100 points in a single season since Brian Leetch in 1991-92. We’re sure that if Karlsson hits the century mark, he’ll run away with the award. It may be difficult to give a major award to a player who has featured on a brutal Sharks club, but they’ve reached their nadir without him.

If the award has morphed into the NHL’s best offensive defenseman, then it should go to Karlsson. It’s an uneasy proposition for me, given how the Sharks fared on the other side of the ice, where Karlsson hasn’t suppressed goals meaningfully. In our midseason awards, we gave the nod to Karlsson over Fox by the slightest of edges and after some flip-flopping, that’s where we stand now.

So, what’s the verdict?

  1. Erik Karlsson

  2. Adam Fox

  3. Hampus Lindholm

  4. Cale Makar

  5. Rasmus Dahlin

  6. Brent Burns

  7. Jaccob Slavin

Honorable mentions:

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets

Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars