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Blue Line Buzz: Trophy Talk

Dan Pennucci

Dan is a former sportswriter and English teacher. He has been covering hockey for Rotowire since 2002. Supports the New Jersey Devils, Washington Nationals and Chelsea FC.

Observations and Ponderings

-This past Tuesday's Dallas-Phoenix game featured a massively entertaining overtime segment, including a save of the year candidate from Stars' netminder Kari Lehtonen, with his squad eventually winning in a shootout.

-Life at the bottom of the Eastern Conference is getting quite interesting with Buffalo surging on the back of Ryan Miller. Through Saturday's games Buffalo has a two-point lead over Washington for the eighth and final playoff spot with 84 points, as the Sabres are two behind seventh-place Ottawa (86) and five back on Northeast Division-leading Boston (89). Miller's play has been stellar, putting up 13 wins with just one regulation loss in his last 17 starts. Over that span, Miller has three shutouts and has allowed two goals or less in 11 contests. Of note to fans, Buffalo plays Washington Tuesday in a pivotal tilt for playoff positioning.

-The Kings are surging out West, having their recent five-game winning streak snapped by Boston Saturday evening. While Miller has been coming on strong of late, the Kings' Jonathan Quick has been producing all season with a miniscule 1.98 goals-against average, eight shutouts and a save percentage hovering close to .930. Quick has a 7-2 record over the last nine games while the Kings are sitting in the eighth spot out west, with 86 points through Saturday.

-Those of you that were hoping to rely on the services of Chicago's Duncan Keith in the season's final two weeks were severely disappointed to hear of his five-game suspension handed down on Friday by Brendan Shanahan and the NHL Department of Player Safety. Wednesday, Keith laid out Vancouver's Daniel Sedin with an elbow to the head and began his suspension Sunday when Chicago squared off with Nashville. There was a questionable hit moments before Keith's elbow to Sedin by a Vancouver player, so there is certainly some debate as to whether Keith's intent was to stand up for a teammate. The idea of establishing intent on hits has somewhat of an Orwellian feel to it, as getting inside a player's head is hardly something the NHL, or anyone, for that matter, can do. Making suspensions based on intent seems almost as arbitrary as suspending a player if there was an injury on the play. A dirty hit can still be a dirty hit even if there was no injury on the play.

-Those on the east coast that are up late Monday will definitely want to tune in to the San Jose-Colorado contest, a game with massive playoff implications. Both squads are tied with 86 points heading into Monday, sitting ninth and tenth, respectively, behind Los Angeles (owner of 86 points and the tiebreaker). Poolies looking for a late-season boost to their blue line will want to check out the Avs' Tyson Barrie, who saw 4:55 of power-play time in Saturday's overtime loss to Vancouver, leading all Colorado skaters.

Barrie posted 30 points in 47 games with Lake Erie in the AHL and he has averaged close to 19 total minutes over the last three games, putting up a plus-2. Barrie doesn't have a point in seven NHL games this season, but the Avs are freely deploying him on the power play and he has shown the ability to produce during his junior career and in the AHL.

-Fans will also want to check out Thursday's contest between Phoenix and San Jose in what will be a battle for one of the final spots out West. The two squads played a classic Saturday evening with the Sharks emerging on top 4-3 in a shootout.

Trophy Talk

It appears a foregone conclusion that Ottawa's Erik Karlsson will capture the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's top defenseman. There has been much debate over the seasons as to whether the trophy has evolved into an award given simply to the league's highest scoring defenseman. Certainly there can be no questioning the all-around ability of Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, owner of seven Norris Trophies. The inclusion of players known mostly for their offensive ability is where the debate gets a little hazier. Is Erik Karlsson worthy of the trophy if we use Lidstrom as a comparison?

Offensively, Karlsson is having a season that rivals and, in some ways, surpasses that of Mike Green's 2009-10 campaign, as Karlsson sits with 19 goals and 73 points through 75 games. He has more assists, 54, than the second player on the defensemen scoring list, Florida's Brian Campbell, has points, 49; from a fantasy perspective, Karlsson's season, by comparison to his peers, is one of the best in recent memory, as was Green's 2008-09 campaign when he tallied 31 goals. Karlsson is an elite offensive player, there's no doubting that, but does he have the kind of all-around game to merit Norris talk?

Pittsburgh's Kris Letang surely would be in the discussion had he not missed considerable time due to a concussion this season. Letang is incredibly strong on his skates, as is Karlsson, but has a more physical element to his game. Letang has played just 46 games this season, registering 36 points in the process. St. Louis's budding star, Alex Pietrangelo, should be hearing his name in Norris discussions for years to come, as the former first-round pick has an impressive 46 points with a plus-17 rating. He has been part of St. Louis's outstanding run toward the President's Trophy and has a chance to crack 50 points this season.

So, the question arises: is 45 points the benchmark for a player to be considered for the Norris Trophy? 50? Using 45, as of Sunday, will give us six candidates including Dustin Byfuglien of Winnipeg and Washington's Dennis Wideman. The 45-point caveat, which the likes of Boston's Zdeno Chara and the Shea Weber-Ryan Suter duo of Nashville will pass by the end of the season, seems a good starting point, but can we honestly say that Wideman is a better all-around defender than Chara or Weber?

Given his turnaround this season, Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa certainly deserves to have his name in the conversation. What about blue liners without gaudy offensive numbers, those who are minute-eating defenders against the opposition's top scoring lines?

Sadly, players with the all-around ability of the Rangers' Dan Girardi and Chicago's Brent Seabrook probably won't ever win the Norris Trophy simply because their offensive stats won't be in the same league as Karlsson, Chara, and Weber. Players such as Pietrangelo and Vancouver's Alexander Edler will definitely have their chances to win the trophy over the course of their careers, as will Letang and possibly Ryan Suter.

Barring a collapse in the season's final two weeks, the trophy appears to belong to Karlsson, but arguments can certainly be made for other, more complete defensemen.

Late-Season Steals?

The boat has sailed on several players that have been a boost to owners, such as Chicago's Nick Leddy and Florida's Jason Garrison, but carefully mining the wire the last two weeks of the season could yield a gem or two depending what category of stats you're seeking.

-Boston's Johnny Boychuk is hardly going to be confused with Zdeno Chara anytime soon, but, over the last three games, Boychuk has an assist and is a plus-6. He has 15 points on the season, but a healthy plus-26 rating to go with 51 penalty minutes.

-The Penguins' Paul Martin owns two assists over the last four games with a plus-5 rating through Saturday.

-As for points leaders the last week that likely are available in deeper leagues, Columbus's enigmatic Nikita Nikitin is back on the radar with a goal and two assists over the last three games. Nikitin missed some time with a bruised foot and the Jackets' blue line is suddenly less crowded due to injury, namely Fedor Tyutin and James Wisniewski both out for the season. Nikitin has a solid 25 points scattered over 47 games with a minus-7 rating (which basically is a plus-20 in Columbus terms). Nikitin is back in action and well worth a look for the final two weeks of the season.

-After Nikitin, a pair of Alberta defenders have seen their names on the scoresheet often, as Edmonton's Jeff Petry and Calgary's Anton Babchuk each have three points over the last four games. Petry certainly has benefitted from the departure of Tom Gilbert. He has been seeing much ice time for the Oilers and owns 22 points on the season with three helpers the last week.

A bit further south, Babchuk has a goal and two assists over the last three games, putting up a point each contest. Despite a heavy shot Babchuk has just one goal this year in 26 games through Saturday. Babchuk has a 16-goal season to his name, but has certainly dealt with injury troubles this year. He can likely be had for next to nothing on your league's waiver wire and has seen 5:39 and 4:47 of power-play time in the last two games as Calgary looks to stay alive.

-Rangers' prospect Tim Erixon has points in the last two games, putting up an assist each in Friday's loss to Buffalo and Saturday's win over Toronto. Before you look to pounce on him note that Erixon played just 9:41 in Saturday's contest, the second game in which he's played under 10 minutes since his latest NHL call-up one week earlier. Loaded with offensive potential, as evidenced by his 33 points in 43 games with the AHL's Connecticut Whale, Erixon is an attractive prospect in keeper leagues. Keep an eye on Erixon's ice time, as the health of Steve Eminger, who has missed the last five games with an undisclosed injury, could factor into it. However, the Rangers are already missing Kurt Sauer due to a concussion.

Question of the week: In honor of the release of "The Hunger Games," a film adapted from a novel about a group of children pitted against one another in a fight to the death, which NHL coach would emerge on top in hockey's version? Which coach would be killed first?

Questions, comments and suggestions for future articles are welcomed, contact Dan Pennucci here and follow him on Twitter @DVNucci42.