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Is Morgan Rielly really in the Norris conversation?

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Drinking the Kool-Aid.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Every season the Maple Leafs have a player or two who are shoo-ins to win an award.

Auston Matthews was going to win the Rocket, Hart, Calder, and Ted Lindsay after he set a record for most goals scored in a debut game. The 2016 first-overall pick settled for one out of those four. Nazem Kadri also had his name already written on the Selke while people still argue why Mike Babcock was robbed of winning the Jack Adams two years ago.

This year is no different, with Morgan Rielly getting the buzz to be the league’s best defenceman and take home the Norris Trophy in Vegas next summer. But is it only buzz or is there something behind it?

Rielly is coming off a career year that saw him put up 6 goals and 46 assists in 76 games, and he is continuing to score this season. With 9 goals and 18 assists through 25 games, Rielly is tied for first in defensive scoring in the league with rookie defenceman Thomas Chabot. He’s well on his way to another 50-point year, but despite what it may seem, there is more that decides the Norris winner than who has the most points. Or at least that’s what the committee makes it out to be.

Consider the last five defencemen to win the Norris: Victor Hedman, Brent Burns, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, and Duncan Keith.

Of these five, only Burns and Karlsson in their respective years led all defencemen in scoring. The furthest from being the top point-getter was Doughty at 10th (2015/16) followed by Hedman at 5th and Keith at 2nd.

Aside from the raw stats, I chose to dive a little deeper into each winner’s performance that season.

Norris Winner Stat Breakdown

Year Winner G A P P1 PPP RelCF% RelCF/60 RelCA/60 RelxGA/60
Year Winner G A P P1 PPP RelCF% RelCF/60 RelCA/60 RelxGA/60
2018 Hedman 17 46 63 40 26 0.38 2.66 1.6 0.07
2017 Burns 29 47 76 42 27 4.05 14.56 4.58 0.69
2016 Doughty 14 37 51 32 24 4.31 1.22 -7.44 -0.11
2015 Karlsson 21 45 66 46 30 4.66 8.49 -1.94 0.08
2014 Keith 6 55 66 26 21 2.12 10.31 4.15 0.19
Relative stats at 5v5 (via Natural Stat Trick and Corsica). PPP = Power play points

As an aside, relative stats are a good way to see how much of an impact a player has to their team. RelCF/60 points towards their shot generation while RelCA/60 is their shot suppression. The greater the number the better for the former stat while a negative value for the former is best as it indicates that the team allows fewer shots while the player is on the ice vs. off. For example, of the five former Norris winners, Doughty was the best suppressor at 5v5 shot with a -7.44 RelCA/60.

The ‘relative’ aspect of it takes into account the stat when the player is on the ice vs. when they are off. Looking again at Doughty’s RelCA/60, the Los Angeles Kings gave up nearly 7.5 fewer chances against when he was on the ice while they had a little over one extra scoring chance in the same scenario (via his RelCF/60 of 1.22).

Expected goals against is a nice bonus number as well as it looks at the number of goals a team is expected to give up based on the quality and quantity of shots allowed. Again, the rel compares the stat when the player is on the ice vs. off.

But even in fancy stat land, the top defencemen doesn’t win. But that’s a given. I doubt one of the lines used during the voting process is, “Well, let’s check out their Corsica page.” It does help provide a little more meat and context to the conversation though. Another thing that is important is who the winner is lined up against.

For example last year’s winner, Hedman, was up against Doughty and P.K. Subban for the award. The best defencemen make their team better, but interestingly enough, when it comes to the impact on the team offensively, Doughty was the best option.

Team Impact (Offence)

Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
Rel Goals For/60 0.17 (11th) 0.57 (4th) 0.29 (9th)
Rel Shots/60 0.7 (9th) 2.92 (4th) 1.07 (10th)
Rel Corsi For/60 2.66 (6th) 4.29 (4th) -0.9 (11th)
Relative stats at 5v5 | Rank on the team in parentheses

Interesting stuff. Doughty set a career high in points which had him third on the Kings behind Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar.

We begin to see a separation between the three defencemen when looking at their individual numbers and scoring rates.

Individual Performance (Offence)

Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
5v5 Goals/60 0.55 0.19 0.38
5v5 Assists/60 0.68 0.72 0.68
5v5 Points/60 1.23 0.91 1.06
PP Goals/60 0.47 0.71 1.23
PP Assists/60 5.64 3.76 4.41
PP Points/60 6.11 4.47 5.64

Hedman is clearly the leader here between the three both at 5v5 and on the PP. Additionally, he sets himself apart from Doughty and Subban when looking at other top-flight defenders in the league. His G/60 at 5v5 was first among all defencemen who saw at least 1,200 minutes of ice time. The same goes for Hedman’s overall point totals per hour which have him in the top ten at both 5v5 and the man advantage.

But as a defenceman, your efforts to keep the puck out of the net and suppress shots and scoring chances carry more weight. However, Hedman wasn’t the better of the three at 5v5.

Defence

Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
Rel Shots Against/60 1.8 -1.41 -0.34
Rel Corsi Against/60 1.6 -5.54 -1.52

Looking at their performance on the penalty kill could be another indicator of defensive marks, but at the same time, Tampa’s PK was 27th in the league while LA and Nashville were first (85%) and sixth (81.9%) respectively. Either way, Hedman wasn’t the better of the three here either:

Penalty Kill

Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
Stat Hedman Doughty Subban
PK Rel Shots Against/60 2.93 13.31 -6.55
PK Rel Corsi Against/60 6.06 11.05 -13.44

So what does the voting committee really look for in a Norris winner? Although Hedman didn’t have the best defensive numbers, his production offensively, especially on the league-leading power play, was incredible.

Here are some of the numbers Rielly is pulling out for the Leafs at the moment:

Individual Impact

Stat 5v5 PP
Stat 5v5 PP
Goals/60 0.69 (7th) 0.99 (4th)
Assists/60 0.97 (7th) 7.94 (1st)
Points/60 1.66 (5th) 8.94 (2nd)
Power play (PP) stats of those who have seen at least 50 mins

Relative Impact

Stat 5v5
Stat 5v5
Rel Goals For/60 2.58 (2nd)
Rel Shots For/60 8.4 (1st)
Rel Corsi For/60 4.73 (5th)
Rel Shots Against/60 7.44 (19th)
Rel Corsi Against/60 7.49 (19th)

I included Rielly’s rank among all other players on the Leafs, including forwards in parentheses to add more weight to his performance thus far. You may have noticed how high some of these numbers are, in particular, his production on the power play.

The same thing goes for his relative stats, which show how much of an impact Rielly has offensively at 5v5. And let’s keep in mind he spend almost all of his time with Ron Hainsey.

It is still early in the season but a lot of Rielly’s numbers are greater than Hedman’s from last season. The season that got him the Norris.

Another thing we have to take into account is who are the other two next to him, assuming he’s one of the three nominees. There will be a lot more to look upon when that decision is made. But for now, Rielly’s impact on the Leafs’ offence is continuing to draw attention whether fans around the league like it or not.

“Is Morgan Rielly really in the Norris conversation?” I say most definitely. It also helps that he’s playing for Toronto (sorry) and doing so well on a blueline that analysts couldn’t stop talking about over the summer. For now, we have to sit on our hands and watch to see how this progresses.

A Rielly nomination would be a special moment but a victory would be the first in franchise history. And we all know who would be the happiest if that happened.


Acknowledgements: Advanced stats from Corsica.