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Kats Krunch: Karlsson Wins Norris

 Erik Karlsson should win the Norris Trophy in 2016

I wanted to analyze the Norris race using different criteria unexamined outside of traditional box-score or shot based metrics, to highlight the importance of Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Brent Burns.

I never thought I would see another defenseman come close to scoring 30 goals since Mike Green did it in 2008-09 but here we are. The Senators and Sharks defensemen are on the brink of achieving an NHL feat not accomplished since 1973-74.

Five kilometers south from Burns in San Jose resides another Norris contender, Drew Doughty, Karlsson’s fiercest competitor.

I’m going to use some Passing Project data (who have introduced a shiny new little visualization) to offer an unexplored alternative.

Before that, I want to touch on the defensive debate. Erik Karlsson doesn’t play penalty killing minutes, while analysts laying more importance to a structural part of the game, rather than individual skill and smarts.

Let’s start with the penalty kill. If you were the owner of the Senators, would you want to see Erik Karlsson taking multiple shots to the ankles in an effort to save a power play goal? How about the GM? Coach? How about a fan? How much is a blocked shot worth in comparison to Karlsson generated scoring chances?

Karlsson is so effective playing 5v5 and 5v4 minutes, it only makes sense to limit the penalty kill time in an effort to capitalize on prime assets. It’s what a good coach would do. Shorthanded minutes would be detrimental, not fundamental. A traditional two-forward/two-defenseman penalty killing unit doesn’t even need to be structured in that way if players can fit the roles. Theoretically, assuming adequate backwards skating and they’re taught to flawlessly slot into the defensive zone setup as a blueliner, any forward could do the job. Interchangeable parts should be the fundamental basis even if that means using untraditional roles for players. Clearly, using a slew of forwards as a penalty kill unit is extreme, but it can be done.

Any defenseman can play the penalty kill. The fact Karlsson doesn’t appear at 4v5 could very well be due to the influence of the analysis I’m identifying here today. The Senators must already know the value and have built strategy around the central idea.

Karlsson’s offensive skillset can carry the play individually so effectively, whether rushing the puck or manning the point. Defensively, Karlsson plays the support role, moving the puck in transition with his partner (or backside pressure, or some other contributing factor) providing engage.

In Karlsson’s breakout season, Filip Kuba was instrumental in achieving this support/engage dynamic, the Czech doing the heavy defensive lifting, the primary engage to jostle pucks loose, while Karlsson provided the transition and offensive spark.

To use him in situations only deemed appropriate by tradition or common assumption is to misuse his talent. This basic concept: if I have the puck, your team is playing defense.

Let’s take a closer look at some data to see what I mean.

Small Sample Alert

Data is assembled via and the passing project – albeit, there is a very small sample size here to work with from all three teams that have been tracked. LA only has 10 games tracked, while Ottawa has 13. San Jose has 21 games, which is actually above average for the NHL but there’s a distinct theme here supported by some shot-based metrics, for merit.

Passing Project data tracks passes ending up in shot attempts, with three passes recorded (along with originating zone and lane) prior to the end event. We could isolate each defenseman’s tracked record as the tertiary, secondary or primary passer – as well as shooter which could benefit Burns most, when tallying all shots at the team level.

All data is Score Adjusted 5v5 to limit the effects of special teams. Using war on ice data I took the players stats for tracked games, with results in the table. There’s lots happening here, but TOI is the sum of time on ice. iCF is the average individual Corsi For.

Player  TOI  iCF  SF%Rel  CF%Rel
Burns 431.10 5.86 -2.26 -0.08
Doughty 181.40 4.00 1.72 0.57
Karlsson 264.90 3.92 10.95 8.49

Take notice of that gap among the Norris contenders in Shots For relative to team (SF%Rel) and corresponding relative Corsi For% (CF%Rel). Both Karlsson and Doughty averaged similar individual Corsi Events, with Burns the shooter edging them both out. 

At the team level, the table for games tracked. The column %Shots By Passes is the representative ratio of shots on goal generated from a pass event prior to the shot.

Team CF% GF% SF %Shots by Passes
L.A 57.28 56.34 237.43 69.07
OTT 46.49 38.19 272.79 75.52
S.J 49.34 49.02 507.22 70.78

To no one’s surprise, the Kings dominate the Corsi battle, with Ottawa lagging in shots and goals for ratios. Summing the passing project data, The Senators top the percentage of shots via at least a pass.

Once again, sample size, but my guess would lean towards either less passes leading up to a shot event for Ottawa – almost as if they overly rely on singular players to generate shot attempts – while the Kings and Sharks have other scoring options and system implementations to spread the responsibility around.

The table below filters for passes ending as a shot on goal. Each player’s individual contributions as the shooter (sh), primary (A1), secondary (A2) and tertiary (A3) passers are listed in columns. The Percent column represents percentage of pass contributions to total team shots. The Shot% column is individual player shots as a percentage of total team shots. No surprise Burns leads here with almost 12% of the Sharks shots from a pass.

Erik Karlsson was a contributor to 55% of the shots on goal in the games tracked. Over half of the Senators shot generation involved Karlsson at some level. Half.

Shots Team Shots from Pass Sh A1 A2 A3 Percent Shot%
Doughty 164 11 11 5 1 17.07 6.70
Karlsson 206 10 56 29 20 55.83 4.85
Burns 359 42 37 32 14 34.82 11.70

Let’s change it to shot attempts, that didn’t end as a shot on goal, represented by the table below and whoa … Erik Karlsson.

non SOG attempts Team Shots from Pass Sh A1 A2 A3 Percent Shot%
Doughty 175 19 19 7 4 28.00 10.86
Karlsson 173 46 55 28 14 82.66 26.59
Burns 354 104 42 18 19 51.69 29.38

We see two different things here. First, the incredible 82.66 contribution rate (if only Ottawa had finishers) and the gap between Shot% closing with Burns. Doughty must be playing too much defense, or penalty killing minutes to make almost one-third of the impact Karlsson does. 

The Kings play a ‘heavy’ team game, with scoring/shooting opportunities created from cycles, zone time and quick strikes. Postulating removing Doughty and the Kings offensive game doesn’t suffer as much as removing Burns or Karlsson.

A summation of shot attempts values Karlsson’s contribution to the Senators 5v5 shot generation three times that of Doughty’s contributions.

Karlsson contributed to 73% of his passes turning into a shot attempt at the team level. How can that not spell N-O-R-R-I-S?


Total Shots Team Shots from Pass Sh A1 A2 A3 Percent Shot%
Doughty 339 30 30 12 5 22.71 8.85
Karlsson 379 75 111 57 34 73.09 19.79
Burns 713 174 79 50 33 47.12 24.40

Once more, with feeling. Small sample. But there is something there and I’m dying to see this race with a full season’s data that would include less results disparity.

So there you have it. Go ahead and cite the ‘doesn’t play defense’ or ‘lacking penalty killing minutes argument’ but you should ask yourself first: are those things equivalent to driving three of every four team shot attempts at even strength toward the opposition net?

If so, I’ll change my mind.

Erik Karlsson deserves and will win the Norris Trophy. 

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