Victor Hedman Shouldn't Win the Norris Trophy
The award favourite is having his most ordinary season in years.
“Victor Hedman is the best defenceman in the NHL” might be one of the most uncontroversial statements in hockey right now. In a fan poll I ran last weekend ranking blueliners, he finished first by far and got 55% of the first place votes.
This attitude has extended to the Norris trophy this season, where the former Conn Smythe winner seems poised to finish in first place by a landslide. Hedman has 44 points, plays over 25 minutes a night, and the Lightning are one of the top teams in the league; given his pedigree and proven two-way ability, there isn’t anybody who poses a serious threat to his candidacy.
But I’m not so sure. Victor Hedman is an excellent defenceman - maybe the best in the sport - but I think this season is his least-convincing Norris bid in years. By far.
In this piece I could lay out a bunch of fancy models like Wins Above Replacement and RAPM and argue that complicated calculations of isolated impact are proof that Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, Cale Makar, or even Adam Pelech deserve the award more than him. But I don’t think I have to. I’m going to lay out some factual statements, back them up with stats and video, and try to make this undeniably unpopular case as convincing as possible.
1. This Season, the Lightning Have Been a Better Team With Him on the Bench at 5v5
This is the main inconvenient truth of Victor Hedman’s campaign.
The Lightning have been one of the best teams in the league in the shortened season - 2nd in the Central Division and 6th in the NHL in points percentage, 4th in goal differential, 8th in 5v5 goals for percentage, and 9th in 5v5 expected goals for percentage. You might be tempted to attribute much of this success to Hedman, but the simple fact of the matter is that the Lightning have been a better team without him on the ice at 5v5.
When Hedman has been on the ice at 5v5, the Lightning have barely outscored their competition, 39 to 38. When he’s been off the ice, they have outscored their opponents 63 to 43.
Let’s put that another way. When Hedman is on the ice, the Lightning outscore their opponents a little bit less than the Winnipeg Jets. When he’s off the ice, they outscore their opponents by a higher margin than the Colorado Avalanche.
It isn’t common that an elite #1 defenceman underperforms the rest of the team by that kind of margin, to say the least. Compare Hedman to a collection of the other players who are considered candidates for the Norris this season:
Not a single one of them is even close to getting outscored at 5v5, and not a single one is anywhere near as much of a drag on goal differential as Hedman has been.
How about if we compare him to other past Norris winners?
Hedman would be the only Norris winner in the past decade who’s barely broken even, and whose team has performed better when he’s on the bench (let alone by such a massive margin).
I am sticking to my no-expected-goals promise, but I will just briefly mention that the Lightning are also a better team when it comes to preventing dangerous scoring chances when he’s off the ice as well. Particularly from the left side of the slot. But that’s probably someone else’s fault.
This isn’t to say that the Norris trophy should be awarded based on relative goals for. But if Hedman’s team objectively performs better without him - despite the fact that he gets to play with their elite top forwards more than anybody else on the blueline - doesn’t that put a bit of the dent in the argument that he’s been the league’s best defenceman this season?
2. He is Not Playing Tough Competition
“Player X plays tough minutes” is basically a cliché at this point and inevitably comes up whenever a big minute defenceman is remotely criticized. If you face tough competition, the thinking goes, all analytical results can be thrown in the trash (including the ones that adjust for quality of competition, since they’re obviously not doing it enough).
Less frequent is any actual evidence behind those claims, and a lot of the time, it’s not actually true. This season, Hedman is a perfect example.
The way we actually measure quality of competition is by using a stat called TOI% QoC (Time on Ice Percentage Quality of Competition), which inputs all the opponents a player faces, the share of their team’s minutes they play, and how many minutes that player plays against them. The higher your TOI% QoC, the more 1st liners and top pairings you’re playing against relative to the rest. Using this simple stat (simple to use, apparently a pain in the ass to calculate), we can see objectively which players are facing, on average, opponents who are higher in the lineup.
The fact of the matter is that, contrary to popular belief, the idea that some players only face superstars and others only play against fourth liners is a complete myth. Everyone plays against everybody, and matchups are very difficult to arrange in practice.
But even if we say, for the sake of argument, that it matters a lot, it would actually be a mark against Hedman. Because it’s not his pairing that gets the tough assignments; it’s Ryan McDonagh’s. And in fact, no defenceman who plays the kinds of minutes Hedman does faces easier competition on average.
In fact, there isn’t a single other player who’s even being considered for the Norris who has a lower average quality of competition than Hedman does.
If we show the rest of the Lightning defencemen, it’s pretty clear who the actual match-up pairing for the team has been:
Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak aren’t playing together at the moment, but they’ve played more minutes as a duo than any other pair on the Lightning. They’ve faced by far the toughest competition on the team and absolutely crushed it with a 60% goals rate and a 56% shot attempt share. And they, not Hedman, are who John Cooper plays against top competition.
Hedman also gets very friendly zone starts - per EvolvingHockey he starts 14.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone (12th) and only 9.6% in the defensive zone (121st). If there’s a faceoff in the defensive zone, it’s more likely that you’ll see McDonagh, Cernak, or even Mikhail Sergachev out there.
So when you argue for Hedman over a player like Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, etc., keep in mind that those players get tougher assignments in terms of both who they play against and where they start their shifts. And if you’re giving out the Norris based on who plays the most minutes, there are five guys who play more than him per night.
3. His Production is Mostly Due to the Powerplay
Hedman’s Norris case is inextricable from his production this season. His 44 points rank second among defencemen, which, combined with his reputation for incredible defensive play, has confirmed to most hockey fans and media that he has assembled a legendary two-way performance this season.
In actuality, Hedman has basically been a powerplay specialist. 55% of his points have come on the man advantage; only Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Shea Weber have relied so heavily on the PP. He ranks 38th in 5v5 scoring, tied with Nicolas Hague and Mike Reilly.
There’s nothing wrong with scoring points on the powerplay - goals count the same no matter where they come from. But the PP constitutes only 10% of the game, and PP goals 20%. How much stock do you put in that small portion when deciding who’s been the best in total?
It’s tough to look at the evidence and conclude that Victor Hedman is the leading candidate for the Norris trophy because his performance this year has legitimately warranted it. The real reason that he’s the top contender because he’s Victor Hedman, and he’s close enough to the top of the point race to affirm the assumption that he should win because we already know he’s the best. Take these NHL.com arguments in his favour:
"Producing points on a regular basis? Playing in big situations? Logging strong minutes? Hedman checks all the boxes."
"He is still putting up points even while the Lightning have struggled with a bit of inconsistency of late. He'll lead the way when they get back on track."
"I feel like I'm a broken record in saying (often) that Hedman is the best defenseman in the NHL right now. But I'll say it again for anyone who hasn't gotten it yet. He's the best. Give him the trophy."
Thanks to the unique divisional schedule this season, fewer fans than usual have watched even small samples of Hedman playing this season. I suspect that the vast majority of those who are adamant that he should win have seen him play fewer than five times.
If they had, while I’m sure they would correctly recognize that he’s an awesome player, they would probably notice that he hasn’t been as much of a factor at 5v5 as usual. He’s moving the puck up the ice far far less than he usually does - few defencemen had been more consistently involved in transition than him up to this season, but his participation on the break-out in particular has been quite limited. They would also notice how Hedman’s decision-making in the offensive zone is helping limit the Lightning to the perimeter. He’s taking more shot attempts than he ever has this season, and for the most part these are low-percentage prayers from the point. When he’s on the ice, a quarter of the Lightning’s shot attempts come from him, the 3rd-highest rate in the league, and scoring chances close to the net are relatively scarce. There’s a reason why Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Blake Coleman generate better opportunities when away from him.
They would also notice that, contrary to the reputation that Hedman plays a mistake-free brand of hockey, he has made quite a few defensive errors this season - especially lately - that have hurt his team, whether they’re overly ambitious pinches, lapses in coverage, or just straight-up defensive zone blunders.
None of this is to say that he’s uniquely bad, or bad at all. This isn’t an “analytics guy tells you that x player is not good at hockey, really” article. But this has been Hedman’s most ordinary season in years, his least deserving of Norris recognition, and yet somehow the most unanimously acclaimed. There are other players who may not share his pedigree or reputation but certainly have outperformed him in this shortened season and deserve much more than a fraction of the attention that he has received.
Beautiful write up. This season it's Fox and Makar game-to-game but Fox will have the more convincing sample size and higher team-relative impacts.
Just wondering what the stats would be when looking at goals against. There are two ends of the ice.