Being a fan of the Winnipeg Jets lends itself to myopic tendencies. The Jets’ peaks are never quite as stratospheric as we may think, and likewise, the lows are never quite as catastrophic.
This brings us to Josh Morrissey, or as he is now cleverly dubbed – Josh NORRISsey. By all accounts, Josh is having a breakout season and is performing at aspirational levels. This has led many Jets fans, pundits, and prognosticators to speculate on his chances of taking home the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Is this biased wish-casting, or a legitimate query?
Before we call the engraver, let’s take an objective look. I believe that thoroughness dictates that we examine his odds of winning by asking the following questions: (i) Who traditionally wins the Norris? (ii) What are the criteria for winning? and (iii) How is Morrissey faring this year in relation to his defensive brethren?
Who traditionally wins the Norris Trophy?
The James Norris Memorial Trophy is much like political office – once you win, there is a good chance you will keep winning. From 1967 to 2011, notable repeat winners include Bobby Orr (8 consecutive), Nicolas Lindstrom (7), Ray Bourque (5), Paul Coffey (3), and Chris Helios (3). An impressive fraternity indeed.
What does the Norris Trophy Award represent?
Starting in 2011 however, the Award became noticeably less autocratic. Since that season, there has been only one repeat winner – Erik Karlsson in 2011 and 2014. That means that the last 7 years have seen a new winner, signaling greater parity in the NHL, or just more democratic voting.
There was a time in the late ’70s and early ’80s where guys like Larry Robinson (2) and Rod Langway (2) won this award. True pugnacious defenders, Robinson and Langway were of the ilk lauded by your Dad and his friends over a case of OV. But they are outliers. It appears that the award for best defensemen, dating back to Doug Harvey (7), rewards primarily offensive contributions, which leads us to…
What criteria are used to determine the ‘best defenseman’?
Unfortunately there is no comprehensive manual, or standardized guideline to consult here for direction. Like any voting mechanism, it is subject to voter whims and trends. The “Professional Hockey Writers Association” votes on “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability at the position.” If we can be assured of anything, it is the scrupulous and experience-laden bonafides of folks that write about hockey (present company included).
Since the 2016-2017 season, every Norris Trophy winner has finished in the top 2 of defensemen scoring, with the lone exception of Victor Hedman in 2017 (5th). In fact, in 2021, Tyson Barrie led the league in scoring for defensemen and was the first player to do so and fail to receive a single VOTE for the Norris. That means, in order to be realistically considered for the award, a player has to finish (at least) in the top 3 in scoring for defensemen. That is, unless your team is a juggernaut steamrolling opponents like Ken in a Fish Called Wanda.
The real question becomes, is offensive prowess a true measure of “all-round ability”? Given that we don’t know how the voters are basing their decisions, it is impossible to know. Do analytics play a roll? We can surmise that playing on a good team helps. Victor Hedman, Mark Giordano and Cale Maker, winners in the past five years, all played on dominant teams the year they won.
I blame this obfuscation on Bobby Orr. Hyperbole, I know. The best defenseman to ever play the game, Orr was the complete package and led the league in scoring 2 times. His eight consecutive wins were well deserved, but I believe they bastardized and morphed the award permanently into what it has become. Orr WAS an amazing two-way defenseman, but his offensive output became the ‘stickiest’ qualifier.
Evaluating Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey
But is that so bad? Would we not at least superficially agree that Cale Makar (last year’s winner) is the best defenseman in the NHL? It just ostensibly eliminates players that are ‘traditional’ D-men. Blocked shots, hits, net front clearance, etc. take a back seat. Chris Chelios had some sandpaper to his game, but in the years he won, he was 4th, 9th, and 4th again in scoring. So what about Morrissey?
How is Morrissey faring this year in relation to his defensive counterparts?
Morrissey currently sits 6th in scoring for defensemen, however only 4 points separate him and Adam Fox (a former winner), who sits in 2nd. Given Morrissey’s play in November, it is not unrealistic to project him into a top 3 position, especially given he has played fewer games than most to this point.
It is not clear how, or if, underlying metrics influence voting. Morrissey currently sits 58th in Expected Goals per 60 minutes, On-Ice Goals Differential he is 11th, and his Corsi and Fenwick numbers are average. Guys like Rasmus Dahlin and Alex Pietrangelo have better underlying numbers and are objectively better defensively.
So what’s the verdict? What are Morrissey’s chances?
Assuming the Jets maintain the current trajectory, I believe the odds are plausible but not probable. Morrissey has a good chance to finish top 2 in defenseman scoring (Karlsson will win); the Winnipeg Jets are a decent team; his underlying metrics are improving; and his redemption from years prior is compelling. What Morrissey lacks is an established track record of performing at this level. Fox, Maker, Josi, and Hedman all had banked some goodwill and elite offensive production prior to winning. This is new ground for Morrissey.
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My opinion is not a derogation of Morrissey’s play, or his contributions to the Winnipeg Jets this year. NHL success isn’t measured in the Ricky Bobby colloquialism: “if you ain’t first, you’re last”. Winning would require that he keeps up this unprecedented pace (for him), and that established winners like Karlsson, Makar and Fox falter to a degree. That said, I love this new nickname, and I will be rooting for him every step of the way.