At the end of every NHL season, the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association takes a vote and selects the winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy, who, in their eyes, is the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.
|2012 - Francois Beauchemin||2||5||7||14||8|
The defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position. Hmmm. That sounds pretty vague to me. But it has to be vague, doesn’t it?
There is no statistical category that tells you how good a defenseman is at his job. Goals, assists, and points tell you how good he is at a part of his job. Time on ice, especially if you break it down to special teams ice time, tell you more or less how much trust the defenseman’s coach has in his abilities.
And then there’s plus-minus, perhaps the most deceiving statistic used in the NHL, and yet the one so many people use to justify how good their favorite player is at defense. Right. Well, when one player spends the whole night playing against the Joe Thorntons and Patrick Kanes and and Jordan Eberles of the league, and another player spends the whole night playing against the Tom Wandells and Cody McCleods, you’re going to get plus-minus numbers that don’t tell you who the better player is. Take this season's Red Wings. As of this writing, Niklas Kronwall own the worst plus plus-minus rating on the team and Kyle Quincey owns the best. That should be all you need to know.
But when a defenseman has outstanding plus-minus numbers while playing against the opposition’s best every game, that is worth pointing out. And Beauchemin, by the way, is leading the entire league, forwards and defense, in that category.
As for points? He’s got seven. Not bad for a defense-minded defenseman. Time on ice? Boudreau’s balanced philosophy has him playing under 24 minutes a game, but that’s good enough to lead the Ducks. He also leads the Ducks in shorthanded time, and he plays a fair bit on the power play.
But the argument for Beauchemin doesn’t rely on stats. It comes from watching him play, night in and night out. Yes, his bombs from the point help, as do his rare but devastating fisticuffs, and of course his highlight-reel open ice hits. But Beauch doesn’t do these things every game. What he does do is play solid positional defense, sometimes knocking players off the puck with his body and sometimes poking the puck away.
He is at his best close to his own crease, pushing screening forwards to the periphery, disrupting passes, and laying down to block a shot and every once in a while bail out his goalie with a sprawling save in the blue paint. When the Ducks are killing a penalty, count how many times they clear the puck down the ice, and count how many of those times Beauchemin is either the one who cleared the puck or the one who wrestled control of the puck and passed it to whoever cleared.
And that’s not to mention the most underrated part of his game: his passing. Aside from perhaps Cam Fowler, there isn’t anyone on the team I’d rather have with the puck behind his net while both teams go for the change, planning his outlet pass. There is nothing spectacular or unique about Beauch’s outlet passing; all there is to it is consistency. He doesn’t turn the puck over very often, and on the rare occasion that he does, his strong positional play can bail him out more often than not.
Any chance Beauchemin ever had of being considered for the Norris Trophy was thrown out the window when he played mediocre hockey for a season and a half in Toronto, where many of the people who vote on these things would have actually watched him. But those of us who have watched him closely on both sides of his Maple Leaf days know that he’s a much better player than anyone else gives him credit for. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, but as long as he keeps playing the way he is now, we’re not too bothered by it.