The Flames didn’t have too many bright spots throughout the 2020–21 season, but one player in particular was a pleasant surprise. Signing a four-year, $4.5M AAV contract in mid-October 2020, Chris Tanev joined the Calgary Flames to further bolster the blueline. He was surprisingly good, playing arguably some of the best defensive hockey of any Flames or non-Flames defender in recent memory. When the Norris Trophy finalists were announced, his name was notably absent. Was he snubbed from the honours? We asked, you answered.
Chris Tanev’s case for the Norris Trophy
If Tanev made a dollar for every skeptic he had when he signed his contract, well, he might have made $4.5 million this year alone. Tanev had the prototypical makings of an injury-prone defencemen on the wrong side of 30-years-old with his best years behind him. While he was known for his highly defensive play, his numbers started declining even in the areas he excelled at.
However, the long-time Canuck turned Flame had different plans. Instead of continuing down the dreaded age curve that most players can’t beat, Tanev had a resurgence on the ice as one of the league’s best defensive defencemen, full stop.
By the end of the season, opinions of Tanev greatly ranged, from people admitting they were wrong about Tanev, some suggesting that it’s a great time to sell high on the defender while the Flames can extract the most value from him, and even others had him pencilled in for contention for the Norris. As the NHL awards are slowly being awarded throughout the Stanley Cup Semifinals and Final, we asked the public about what they thought about Tanev’s omission from the Norris.
Ultimately, Cale Makar, Adam Fox, and Victor Hedman got the Norris nominations, and that’s a pretty solid class of finalists for the 2020–21 Norris Trophy. The majority of the voters on the poll tended towards the Tanev being rightfully left off the ballot. Let’s see how the numbers stack up towards this sentiment.
Comparing Tanev to the Norris finalists
Let’s start by getting the elephant in the room out of the way first: the difference between offensive defencemen and defensive defencemen. The Norris Trophy is officially awarded to “to the defence player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” which is as defined by the NHL. Voters in the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote for the award and more often than not, the votes tend towards defencemen who put up points on their own scoreboard over the ones that keep opposition off of theirs.
There’s no doubt that Tanev is the latter while most often Norris winners are the former. Let’s see how the three finalists compare to Tanev using various stats and charts.
Looking at 5v5 score-and-venue-adjusted stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, we can compare their seasons with a more complete picture that includes points and on-ice impacts. We’ll look at rates per 60 minutes for offensive metrics like goals, primary and secondary assists, as well as for differentials when looking at corsi, goals, and expected goals.
Tanev will never turn heads on offence, that’s a given. The other three players are more offensively minded without a doubt. However, when looking at on-ice results, Tanev only trailed Makar in corsi, goal, and expected goal differentials. Yet, he was better than Fox and Hedman at playing defence.
Regularised adjusted plus-minus
Looking at regularised adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) charts from Evolving-Hockey.com, we can also compare the four players.
Based on RAPM, Tanev is elite defensively with underwhelming offence, while Makar is elite offensively with above average defence. Fox is good all-around while Hedman’s season wasn’t anything special, with underwhelming results in a few categories.
5v5 defence based on shot locations against
Finally, turning to HockeyViz.com, we can look at how each defenceman’s team fared when he was playing defence.
Tanev was by far the best at playing defence. With him on the ice, expected goals against per 60 minutes dropped down to 1.62, which was a whopping 36% less than what a league-average defence would give up. There was very little threat for Jacob Markstrom and David Rittich in front when Tanev was on the ice. The entire high-danger zone of the slot was pretty much void of shots.
Makar had very good results on defence as well, where he mostly limited opponents to tough angle shots, also making it difficult for his opposition to get shots off in the slot. With Makar on the ice, the Avalanche had 1.91 expected goals against per 60 minutes.
For Fox, he was still an above-average defenceman, with the Rangers posting a 2.13 expected goals against rate with him on the ice, but he had fairly large regions all over the defensive zone where the Rangers would bleed shots against. Fortunately not much of those shots were in high-danger areas, but the overall coverage (or lack thereof) when Fox was on the ice was a still a bit of an issue.
Lastly, Hedman was the worst defender out of the four. While he was still above average—reducing goals against by about 11% compared to league average—he was very inconsistent when it came to limiting shots against depending on the region on the ice.
Who’s going to win the Norris?
Combining the stats and the charts, I would posit that Makar will win his first Norris Trophy just one year after winning the Calder, but Fox could be fairly close as a runner up. Hedman would be a surprise if he finished anywhere other than third. Tanev, in every aspect of defence, had an impeccable case for being one of the league’s best defenders in 2020–21.
Still a great season by the numbers
It’s well known that the Norris voting often overlooks defensive aspects over offensive ones of the game, thereby annually eliminating a cohort of defencemen who are frankly much better at playing defence than they are at scoring from Norris contention. Until this changes, even seasons like the one Tanev had won’t be able to overcome the heavy tendencies to vote for offence over defence.
When Iron Man was taken into space at the beginning of Infinity War, Captain America made the statement that “Earth just lost her best defender.” Well, maybe Steve Rogers needs to pay the Vancouver Canucks a visit too, to tell them that they just lost theirs.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images