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Handicapping the Norris race

Hockey analytics pioneer Rob Vollman is ESPN Insider's armchair GM this season, exploring how modern statistics can inform front-office decisions.

A torn bicep has knocked Mark Giordano out of Calgary's lineup, and also broke this year's Norris Trophy race wide open. Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Kris Letang headline a long list of defensemen who could make a serious case for themselves if they catch fire down the stretch. Is there a clear front-runner?

That's up to the members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) to decide. Every year, the PHWA voters award the Norris to the defenseman with "the greatest all-round ability," theoretically ignoring how valuable he is to the team or how much overall opportunity he may have had to contribute.

Unfortunately, nobody can watch every minute of all 82 games for all 30 teams to make a completely fair assessment of every defenseman, especially local beat reporters who are lucky to catch some teams more than a few times per season. Even when evaluating the local team's players, sometimes that journalist's perspective can be influenced by other factors, such as a defenseman's personal reputation or his play in previous seasons. In short, there are several reasons why a voter may want to double-check his or her subjective opinion with a look at the cold, hard numbers.

Evaluating defensemen using hockey analytics isn't easy, but we have come a long way over the years. Furthermore, the same statistics that serve as a sober second thought for PHWA voters are also useful to NHL front offices contemplating trades or free agency, and therefore useful to fans to help understand their moves. Norris Trophy races will come and go, but the process for evaluating defensemen is both fascinating and timeless.

Here's a look at which players are currently in the mix heading into the final stretch of the season: