With defenseman Shea Weber getting hotter and hotter since the middle of December, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz has increasingly begun making the case for Weber to win the Norris Trophy, given to the NHL’s top defenseman.
In recent weeks Weber has almost single-handedly powered the Predators back into the playoff race — his three-point game at Philadelphia on Jan. 16 and two-goal game last Friday against New Jersey stand out as prime examples of his singular contributions in victories — all of which has lent more credence to Trotz’s claims while also providing some food for thought.
Unless the Predators make the playoffs, Weber will have a hard time winning the Norris. However, if Nashville does make the playoffs, is it possible that Weber is worthy of an even larger prize? Perhaps he is an even better candidate for the Hart Trophy.
First, let’s look at the Norris race. Weber has twice finished as a finalist for the Norris but never brought home the hardware. Behind Weber’s 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in the past 27 games, the Predators have climbed back into the playoff race. They head into Saturday’s game with against the Western Conference-leading Ducks three points out of a wild-card spot.
The consensus favorite for the Norris at present would appear to be the Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith, who won the award in 2010. The defending Stanley Cup champions currently own the second-best record in the league. Keith’s 45 assists rank third in the league, making him the only defenseman in the top six. Keith is on pace for 63 assists, making him one of the few defensemen in the league over the past 15 years to reach the 60-plateau. Wresting the Norris from Keith, based on his and his team’s history, will not be easy.
Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who beat out Weber for the Norris in 2012, also will be a candidate, as he leads all NHL defensemen in points with 54. Karlsson also ranks third overall in the league in time on ice per game at 27:19. Another potential candidate is Minnesota’s Ryan Suter, Weber’s former defense partner with the Predators who was a finalist last season. Suter leads all players in average time on ice (29:49).
The biggest hurdle that Weber faces is convincing Professional Hockey Writers Association voters that his minus-8 rating is not significant, an argument that Trotz has made. Weber plays against opponents’ top scorers on a nightly basis and, as previously stated, is logging heavy ice time. Nashville ranks in the bottom third in the league in scoring and in the top third in power-play efficiency, which negatively impacts Weber’s plus/minus rating.
Now, let’s look at the description of the Hart Trophy. It is given to the player "judged to be the most valuable to his team." Too often, in this correspondent’s mind, the Hart simply goes to the player considered "the best player in the league," which is not the same as "the most valuable to his team." On an even more simplistic level, the Hart often goes to the player who leads the league in points.
In the past 27 games, Weber has figured in 36.2 percent of the Predators’ non-shootout goals (25 of 69). Consider that at the outset of the season, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, before he broke his leg, was said to be having a Hart-caliber season while accounting for 44 percent of his team’s goals — but Stamkos is a forward, whose job is mainly to score. Weber is a defenseman.
Also consider that since Oct. 22 the Predators have played without the other cornerstone of their franchise, goalie Pekka Rinne, who led the NHL in wins in 2011-12. The fact that the Predators are in the playoff race at all is mostly a testament to the way Weber has played.
His 15 goals lead all NHL defensemen and his nine power-play goals are tied for sixth in the NHL. Only one other defenseman is in the top 29 in that category. The fact that Nashville ranks seventh in the NHL on the power play is largely a function of Weber. The Predators have 35 power-play goals and Weber has 19 power-play points, meaning he has figured in 54 percent of those goals.
Even when he does not earn a power-play point, in many cases, it’s because opponents overplay him and his powerful slap shot to such an extent that it leaves others more open. (Ottawa’s Karlsson accounts for 65 percent of his team’s power play points — the Senators rank 13th in the league in power-play efficiency — but plays on a much more high-scoring team, as the Senators rank eighth in goals per game, making Weber more valuable to his lower-scoring team.)
The last non-forward to win the Hart was Montreal goalie Jose Theodore in 2002. The last defenseman to win it was Chris Pronger, playing for St. Louis, in 2000. The Blues won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular season team in the league that season. Pronger ranked 49th in the NHL in points with 62 (14 goals, 48 assists), figuring in exactly 25 percent of his team’s goals 248 goals. However, he led the NHL in both time on ice (30:14 per game) and plus/minus (plus-52).
For the full season, Weber has been a part of 26.5 percent of the Predators’ goals. For most of the first two months after Rinne went down with a hip infection, the Predators struggled, winning just 11-of-28 games.
However, since the end of the three-day holiday break in December, they have gotten back in the playoff race by losing just seven times in regulation over their past 20 games — coinciding with Weber’s hot offensive play, not to mention his strong performance on the other side of the ice.
If Weber can sustain his current level of play or something close to it — for any defenseman to average almost a point per game is admittedly an enormous task — and the Predators qualify for the playoffs, he would certainly be deserving of close consideration for the Hart. It’s hard to imagine another player who is more valuable "to his team."