Friday, June 29, 2012

Dan Hamhuis: Behind the Norris Trophy scenes

This post may be about a week too late, but this is the off-season, man... I exhibit no guilt in being two major NHL events behind.  Hopefully you don't mind.

Try, if you will, to suspend all current thoughts swirling in your head about Brendan Gaunce and Pavel Bure.  Then see if you can recall all of nine days ago, when the NHL doled out their annual awards, celebrating the league's very best with the utterly irrelevant esteemed likes of Matthew Perry and Nickelback.  But forget the telecast.  If you were wise enough to watch something else last Wednesday, perhaps, like me, you opted to simply review the voting results online.  If you are lucky enough to actually locate it, the full results for each trophy – down to every last fifth-place vote – are a resource that can sustain your attention far longer than the actual awards broadcast.

While it's always interesting to see just how close or distant the voting was between the winner and two runners-up, often times the more intriguing results are found after the top three.  Case in point is the balloting for this year's Norris Trophy.

Source: Yahoo! Sports article from Puck Daddy

Among the many ways one could hyper-analyze this list beyond the three nominees, here are just a couple to start with: At fourth overall, Alex Pietrangelo has achieved elite status in just his second year in the NHL.  (Can anyone remember at which point in the season that actually happened?  I cannot.)  That accomplishment segways nicely into the complete absence of Drew Doughty on this list, which effectively contrasts his regular season performance from that of the playoffs.  While not one of 149 voters thought he ranked among the league's top five defencemen this regular season, by the time he was lifting the Stanley Cup two months later, he was probably in a two-way tie with Dustin Brown for Conn Smythe runner-up.

But this article is about neither Pietrangelo or Doughty.  Unlike last June, there was literally nothing for Canucks fans to get excited about for this year's NHL Awards.  So if you're looking for a consolation prize, Vancouver, you did indeed see correctly: At 10th overall in Norris voting, the Professional Hockey Writers' Association (PHWA)¹ gives you the Canucks' own, Dan Hamhuis.

For all the fans out there blasting Gillis for letting
Willie Mitchell go now that he's won a Cup with L.A.,
remember that he wisely signed Hamhuis in his place.
While it's admittedly hard to get excited about a 10th overall ranking – from one perspective, it highlights the longstanding absence of a Canucks defenceman actually capable of winning the Norris – consider the names that Hamhuis finished ahead of: Duncan Keith.  Keith Yandle.  Dan Boyle.  All three defencemen enjoy far higher profiles and the implicit expectation to produce 50-60 points a season.  Mind you, none of them had particularly great seasons by their own personal standards, but they all recorded more points than Hamhuis and are no slouches in their own end.  The fact that the NHL's writers collectively voted Hamhuis ahead of those three offensive juggernauts speaks volumes for his defensively-responsible game.  (It's also interesting to note that Alex Edler, who Canucks fans chose over Hamhuis for the Babe Pratt Trophy as the team's best defenceman, finished 15th.)

With a $4.5 million cap hit, Hamhuis doesn't exactly fly under the radar, but his style of play has seldom attracted the league-wide attention it deserves.   At 23 points over 64 games in his first season with the Canucks, he did not draw a single voting point in 2011, when he was arguably just as valuable to the team's back-end.  So while Hamhuis' real vote-getter was presumably his defensive game, the 14-point improvement in his statline certainly helped to attract more attention to it.

I anticipate that many outside of Vancouver would argue that Hamhuis' name on the above list is no more than an anomaly.  To that, I would first give to them Dan Girardi's two first-place votes to figure out.  If Hamhuis is an anomaly, then Girardi at sixth overall is... what?  A UFO sighting?  But mostly, I'd accuse them of something we're probably all guilty of.  The fact is, we will always overlook sound and reliable defence in favour of flashier end-to-end rushes and more explicit point totals.  While the PHWA gave Hamhuis his due (two second-place votes), by awarding Erik Karlsson the Norris (66 of 149 first-place votes), they also implied that, in expert hockey wisdom, you don't have to be world class in your own end to be deemed the best defenceman.

There is really no objective way of quantifying a player of Hamhuis' ilk in the same way that points do for an offensive defenceman.  It's a subjective call, which likely gives the powers-that-be a little less confidence in voting for a stay-at-homer.  The league awards the Selke for the equally subjective best defensive forward; why not establish a new trophy (to go with a long overdue one for the assists leader) for the best defensive defenceman?

Call it the Rod Langway Trophy, in honour of the Montreal Canadiens/Washington Capitals shutdown defender from the 1980's.²  Then sit back and just watch the nominations pour in for number two in blue and white.


¹ The PHWA is responsible for picking the Norris Trophy, as well as six other major NHL awards.
² Langway accomplished the rare feat of winning the Norris Trophy in back-to-back years (1983 and 1984) as a shutdown defender.  In his award-winning seasons, he scored no more than 32 and 33 points.

*See the discussion regarding this article on the forums here.

1 comment:

  1. i once saw Dan hamhuis going into Minerva's steak house on 41st. True story.