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Doughty v Karlsson: Who's Having the Better Season?

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This article is overdue, I suppose.

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This is the third part of my series looking at the likelihood of a King winning an individual award. If you missed it, here's my piece on Jonathan Quick's shot at the Vezina, and here's my piece on Anze Kopitar's shot at the Selke.

That this is going up following a number of impassioned articles on the Norris race is merely a happy coincidence. One of the most widely debated articles was Eric Duhatschek's piece from last Thursday, and fortunately, Duhatschek covers many of the points I feel need to be made when you discuss the Los Angeles Kings and their chase for individual accolades this season.

For starters...

Body of Work

Duhatschek only ever incidentally covers this, but it is there:

Karlsson, the reigning champion, is a two-time Norris winner, and already has 73 points this season, seven more than he had all of last season. Impressive numbers and voters sure love numbers when casting their award ballots.

Doughty may be the best active player never to win the award, and has added a new wrinkle to his game this season, a goal-scoring component that wasn't there a year ago. He has 13 goals this year, nine on the power play, compared to just seven in total last season.

The emphasized phrases are the ones we need to focus on. As I mentioned in my Jonathan Quick and Anze Kopitar arguments, voters often reward someone they feel deserves the award based on the fact that they haven't won it yet. This also goes the other way: voters will take away an award if they feel a player will earn it for years to come. This is likely part of what did in Drew Doughty back in 2009/10, when he finished third behind Mike Green and Duncan Keith.

Doughty has evolved as a defender since then, but his offensive numbers have never matched what he put up that season. I think voters have been waiting for Doughty to put up points, basically. At some point, it was always going to happen. Doughty was going to have a season when the Kings finally scored some goals or got some breaks to help his offensive numbers. This appears to be that season. His production won't match his 2009/10 season, but it's probably his best season with the puck since then.

Offensive Production

How has Doughty scored his points, anyway? Well, it's certainly not at 5v5 play. Doughty (0.55 pts/60) is currently scoring fewer points/60 at full strength than every Kings defenseman (minimum 50 minutes) except Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb. That includes Rob Scuderi (0.6), Derek Forbort (0.83), and Luke Schenn (0.75).

What Doughty has done well is man the point on the power play. After limiting the sample to players with 50 minutes of power play time, Doughty is 2nd in points/60 to the departed Christian Ehrhoff. He is also 2nd in goals/60 to Tyler Toffoli, which is an impressive figure without question.

Given the narratives surrounding the top two contenders for the Norris this season, it would be hilarious to me if Doughty won the Norris based on his improved offensive production. At this point, though, I have little doubt that Doughty is the favorite. After years of people saying, "well, Doughty is better than Karlsson because Defense Matters," Doughty's going to win the award on the shoulders of his play with the man advantage. Can't make that up!

It will, of course, be impossible to separate out whether people are voting for Doughty because of the tidal wave of support he has earned in recent years, or because they watch enough of both and truly think he deserves it, or because his numbers are just slightly better, making him good enough to reach the national spotlight. There is little question that a contributing factor to him being left off so many ballots last season was due to Doughty being 23rd in points among defensemen. He currently sits in 13th among defenders in points, and he's doing it for a playoff team and probable division winner. Those factors boost his profile as much or more than his actual performance does.

That's just scoring, though. As we have heard for years regarding Doughty, there is more to being a NHL defenseman than scoring points -- and if you want Doughty to win properly, you better hope that this is the case because his offensive numbers are a bit underwhelming, at least during 5-on-5 play.

How Large is the Gap?

I was going to do a weeding out process as I did for Anze Kopitar in the linked Selke post, but it's pointless. We know that this is going to come down to Karlsson and Doughty. Karlsson is the reigning champ and Doughty was the pre-season favorite. It doesn't matter that guys like Duncan Keith and PK Subban and Brent Burns have been outstanding. It is down to Doughty and Karlsson, and no one else is in the mix.

Let's be clear: Karlsson is having a historic season offensively. Drew Doughty is not. The difference between them offensively is staggering. It is definitely worth stating that offense does indeed matter. The Norris does not go to the Best Defensive Defenseman. It goes to the best defenseman, period. The gap between Doughty's and Karlsson's point production does not alone rule out Doughty, as it is certainly possible to bridge a gap through defense.

How large is that gap, though?

For starters, Karlsson is out-producing Doughty at nearly a 3:1 clip at during 5v5 play (1.51 p/60 against 0.58). Though Karlsson gets a substantial zone start push over his teammates, he and Doughty receive similar deployments at 5v5 play thanks to the fact that the Kings are much better at pushing play than the Senators are. The two face roughly the same competition, though Doughty plays with much better teammates. Basically, what Karlsson does offensively, he does in the same conditions that Doughty plays in. He just does it a lot better.

So, remember that. The two defenders, at even strength, are used in virtually identical fashion.

Other Factors to Consider...

Before we get to defense, I'm also going to note that Doughty has been considerably better than Karlsson on the power play. He has scored just as many points in far fewer minutes, and far more of Doughty's points have been primary points (goals + first assists). Some of this is luck-driven, but the Norris isn't about predicting who will be the more productive defenseman next year. Doughty's had an outstanding season with the man advantage, and has been decidedly more valuable than Karlsson in this regard. Not enough to make up for the huge gap during 5v5 play, but it's significant.

People may want to note that Doughty is able to do this thanks to better teammates, but the Kings power play has not been very good historically. It has been better this season, and that may be at least partially due to Doughty's first excellent season with the man advantage in quite some time.

Then we get to quality of teammate. Doughty's teammates are a lot better than Karlsson's. It's not close. Doughty's average linemate has a 56% Corsi and Karlsson's has just a 48% Corsi. I think this has a double-edged effect: Doughty's relative numbers aren't going to be as good because he is replaced by better teammates. Karlsson's relative numbers will be at least somewhat inflated because his teammates are very bad.

How much better Karlsson would fare with better teammates is a question worth debating, but we also do not have a good way to actually figure this out. After all, Phil Kessel was supposed to score 44 goals (or was it 42.5?) (or will he win the Richard?) this season. What we know about team and system effects on scoring is not very detailed at this point. Maybe Karlsson is playing in a system that maximizes his offense because it doesn't have any other hope.

Defensive Abilities

For the above reasons, and because defense is simply a different animal... it's tough to measure the defensive prowess of these two against each other. Real tough. Some people have tried to quantify defensive impact, but I'm wary that we have any real strong grasp on the idea at this point. Even at looking at raw numbers, it's difficult. If Doughty was on the Senators and Karlsson was on the Kings, we genuinely don't know what would happen because the two teams would play vastly different styles. Those are the players you build your game plan around.

Doughty allows far fewer shots and scoring chances and dangerous chances and goals than Karlsson, but it probably comes at the expense of his own offense. Some of this is individual ability. Karlsson can do and is willing to do things that Doughty cannot and will not. Perhaps it pays off. After all, the Kings control 54% of scoring chances when Doughty is on the ice whereas the Senators control just 49% when Karlsson is on the ice.

It's worth noting that Doughty has - perhaps indirectly - elevated his team's ability to control goals while Karlsson has struggled in this regard. Team share of goals is important, but it's (again) incredibly difficult to pinpoint the individual effect that a player has on it, especially in a single season. Doughty has benefited from an elevated SV% while Karlsson has been victim to a severely depressed SV%. It could be argued that Doughty actually does the elevating to his team's SV% while Karlsson does the depressing. Like I said, it's tough to pin down.

On-Ice Save Percentages: A Difference-Maker?

The elevated SV% that Doughty is benefiting from this year does not actually match his career norms. Given that the argument has always been that Doughty has always been good defensively and is only finally being recognized for it, the argument that his elevated SV% is the result of his defensive play this season doesn't hold much water. In fact, since the 2009-10 season, the Kings usually put up a worse SV% when Doughty is on the ice than they get with him off the ice. Historically, Karlsson has fared about the same as Doughty in this regard. Neither seemed to fare much worse than the other in terms of impact on SV% prior to this season.

This year, both players have an on ice SV% that sit at very, very far and opposite ends of the spectrum. I suspect that if all other things remained equal and either of them were at career norms for the impact they see in their on ice SV%, this wouldn't even be a discussion right now; Karlsson would've walked away with the award. The fact of the matter is that this is not the case this season, and Karlsson's team has (through luck or something else) seen much better results defensively without Karlsson on the ice than they do with him on the ice.

The case in point would be the fact that Craig Anderson allows 3.18 goals/60 with Karlsson and just 1.83 without him. Karlsson also allows the most High Danger Chances/60 of any defender on either team. Jonathan Quick sees his GA/60 drop while Doughty is on the ice. It is probable but not definite that a good portion of these results are luck-based. Our dearth of knowledge about actual impact in the defensive zone and actual impact on defensive results make this difficult to parse. We know that Karlsson's teams usually Corsi better with him, and historically there has not been a significant drop off in terms of defensive results. Why the pendulum swung so hard the other way seems like something worth investigating to me.

Final Thoughts

Karlsson is having a historic year offensively, but it does appear that at least some of this may have come at the expense of defense. It seems to me that there has been a categorical unwillingness to accept this even as a possibility among almost everyone in the advanced stats community, which is strange. At the very least, this seems like a complicated question. That's all before we even get to the penalty kill, where Doughty is heavily relied upon and Karlsson is not. Karlsson's results are good on the PK for sure, but whether they'd be as good if he received Doughty's usage is definitely something worth investigating. After all, Doughty played more shorthanded time than Karlsson while producing at a significantly better rate on the power play.

These all seem like worthwhile discussions to me, and instead of answering them, hockey at large has retreated to "Karlsson has SO MANY POINTS" which is a thread of thought I believed we had moved beyond. Moreover, in the year of Patrick Kane, I have not seen one person reflect honestly on whether or not Doughty winning this award would be yet another indictment of how the NHL treats women, survivors of abuse, and its accused. I'm going to withhold my opinion (and this caveat) on this matter in this article itself, but it seems like a more worthwhile discussion than, "Doughty should score more points."

Drew Doughty has had a fantastic season. So has Erik Karlsson. They have done it in far different ways. Who has actually had a better season seems like a complicated question that no one is fully answering. Maybe it's not such a bad idea to reward more than one great player at a time in a given era.