NHL Notes: Chara deserves the Norris Trophy

NHL Notes: Chara deserves the Norris Trophy
April 1, 2014, 9:30 am
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Zdeno Chara isn’t about individual goals, or any bright, shiny trophies that don’t answer to the first name Stanley.

But the Bruins captain is also unfailingly honest with himself and the media when he speaks, and even Chara admitted that scoring 20 goals this season and winning his second Norris Trophy are things that he would thoroughly enjoy.

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve always wanted to do it, but it would be nice to reach 20 [goals]. It’s not on my priority list that I need to score two, or three, or four goals and reach 20,” said Chara. “If it happens, then it happens. But I want to make it happens in the right way, and it’s within the natural flow of a game. I’m not going to be going out there and forcing plays, or taking high risks in order to achieve individual goals.

“That’s never been part of my game. I’ve always wanted to play the game the right way, and if it happens within the system playing things the right way then let’s do it.”

The 6-foot-9 defenseman is within shouting distance of 20 goals, and needs only three to get there for the first time in his 16-year career after previously setting a career-high of 19 goals scored back in the 2008-09 regular season.

The move to the front of the net on the power play has clearly aided the big numbers this season, and he’s also one PP goal away from matching his career-high (11) also set in the 2008-09 campaign. Chara isn’t naïve when it comes to the voting process, and knows the bigger, better offensive numbers will help him.

“I’m hoping that is the case,” said Chara, when asked if larger offensive numbers will attract him votes for being the best defenseman. “It’s up to the writers to take notice of it, and maybe do something about it. All I can do is play my game, play the right way and do my best at both ends of the ice. I’ve been saying it for many years.

“I’m not a flashy player that’s going to be putting up 60 or 70 points, but I’m always the guy that’s going to give 100 percent every game and work really hard, especially defensively. If I can help offensively then that’s a plus to my game.”

That 2008-09 NHL season is also notable for something else in Chara’s career timeline: It’s the season where he won the first and only Norris Trophy of his career. He’s finished as a top three finalist in two of the last three years, but lost to Niklas Lidstrom in 2011 (Lidstrom's last time winning the award in his only season when he was a minus player) and Erik Karlsson in 2012 (a bold choice of the best offensive statistics for a defenseman protected from heavy defensive zone duty by his Ottawa Senators coaches).

This season Chara’s in a crowded, talented Norris Trophy field with Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, but there’s simply no reason why Chara shouldn’t be the favorite to win the award for best defenseman.

It’s something that’s meaningful to him, especially as he gets older and those awards will be more difficult to come by for a surefire future Hall of Famer.

“My priority for every game is to go out facing top line players, and shut them down,” said Chara. “I can’t just join the rushes and take risks. I can’t do something selfishly out there, and chase individual goals or points. I just want to play the right way, and do whatever I can to help win.

“It would be nice [to win the Norris Trophy]. It would be humbling, and it would be a huge honor. It’s something that’s in the writer’s organization’s hands, and that’s where it needs to start.”

Well, let’s start it up then.

We’ll save the argument that there should be two defenseman awards (the Norris, and one called the Orr Trophy for the best offensive defenseman) for another day, and simply focus on the stats.

While some will simply check Keith’s name in the box because he leads all NHL D-men with 51 assists, and has been stellar for a Chicago Blackhawks team that has admirably slugged it out in the tough Western Conference all season. But Keith is also not a part of Chicago’s shutdown pairing, and hasn’t been for a couple of years as Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson get the heavy duty defensive assignments.

That’s spelled out in the numbers where Keith starts his shifts on offensive zone face offs in the neighborhood of 55 percent of the time while Zdeno Chara starts in the offensive zone about 47 percent of the time. Sure, the 6-foot-9 defense stopper is only 24th among NHL defensemen when it comes to total points (36), and stands behind Torey Krug as the leading defenseman point-getter on his own team. But Chara is also the only NHL blueliner that plays 23 or more minutes per game, has 30 or more points, has an offensive-zone start percentage well under 50, has a quality of competition over 1.0, and has a positive CorsiRel (1.531, which gauges the Corsi statistic relative to the player’s teammates).

“I can tell you one thing: There are some people that have won the Norris Trophy with some good stats, and I wouldn’t trade any of them for Zdeno Chara,” said Claude Julien. “I’ve told him that, and I think it’s important that he knows how important he is to our team. Whether he wins it or not, there is a lot of value in the player we have.

“He’s a good two-way defenseman, very reliable, and he plays against other team’s top lines every game, every year. You look at his plus/minus and it’s always up there. He’s one of those guys that’s deserving of consideration every year when it comes to the [Norris Trophy].”

What do all of these fancy stats tell you?

That Chara consistently plays against the other team’s best offensive players in the most challenging situations, that he plays a gigantic role in the dominant puck possession for the NHL’s best team, and that he’s still also able to play a key offensive role for that team with his unique blend of mammoth size and killer slap shot. That he’s been able to do that this season while also shepherding along 20-year-old Dougie Hamilton as his defensive partner is saying something pretty award-worthy.

“I talked about it all of last year. I didn’t know what to expect when I came in here, but you could tell right away how good [Chara] was,” said Hamilton. “It’s so impressive how well he moves for his size, and how good his hands are, and how smart he is. It’s been really fun to play with him, and I think our chemistry is building. It certainly makes life a lot easier for me playing with him.”

Clearly, Chara would have the vote if it were up to his teammates. Johnny Boychuk has been his on-again, off-again partner for the last three years, and knows it’s been a challenging year for Chara with Dennis Seidenberg done for the season back in December.

“Honestly, I think Chara should win every single season,” said Boychuk. “He shuts down all of the best players in the world, he always plays big minutes in every situation and he’s a huge part of our power play year in and year out. Every guy in this room knows how good he is.”

The only player up for Norris consideration with close to the same defensive burden as Chara is Nashville’s Weber, who is a minus-6 as of Tuesday while Chara has built up to a plus-25 rating after being a minus player through the first month of the season.

Instead Chara has done what he’s always done: shouldered the heaviest burden on the team with little fanfare or credit thrown his way. He’s still averaging close to 25 minutes a game while turning 37 years old this season, and he was coming off a deep Stanley Cup run last spring where he averaged the most ice time per game (29:32) for a defenseman in more than a decade.  

Add all of it up, and it should spell Chara for the Norris Trophy on most people’s end-of-the-season ballots.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We were joking around before that only in Winnipeg someone would say negative comments about the birth of a child. Then I heard someone actually did. I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not.” – Bryan Little, after a Winnipeg sports radio personality criticized Andrew Ladd for missing a game against the Dallas Stars to be with his wife for the birth of their child.

The Pittsburgh Penguins lost another player last week when face off specialist/bottom six center Marcel Goc went down with a sprained ankle. Part of the reason why Sidney Crosby is such a no-brainer for this year’s Hart Trophy is the way he’s been able to carry the Penguins to a Metro Division title despite a ton of injuries up and down the lineup. They will become only the third team in the last five years to amass 500 man games lost to injury, and had piled up some painful numbers going into last weekend:

181 - games played by 12 AHL recalls
6 - Injury replacement players to miss multiple games
7 - games with top-four defensemen in the lineup
8 - players to not miss a game
1 - defenseman (Niskanen) to play every game
0 - Games missed by Sidney Crosby

Who would have ever guessed that the oft-injured Crosby would be the one Iron Man holding everything else together in Pittsburgh while the team gets dismembered around him?

Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.