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Letang, Chara, Byfuglien, Suter, Ekman-Larsson Part of Impressive Group in Line for Norris Trophy

Zdeno Chara says he’s striving to improve with every game; Duncan Keith has come back brilliantly from last year’s downer; Dustin Bygfuglien is one of the most exciting players in the game; and Oliver Ekman-Larsson has a six-year deal with the Coyotes and is playing like a grateful man.

Meanwhile, Kris Letang has never been better; Ryan Suter is obviously happy to be playing in the Twin Cities; Francois Beauchemin has impressed everyone on the west coast; and Slava Voynov is reaching the potential the L.A. Kings always believed was there.

Slava Voynov, L.A. Kings

Slava Voynov, L.A. Kings

Sounds strange doesn’t it? Most NHL teams have played 27-29 games and yet, here we are, talking about NHL award winners.

In the lockout-shortened NHL season, the best players in the game don’t have a lot of time to impress the members of the Hockey Writers’ Association and it’s those guys, most of whom have never put on a pair of skates, let alone played an actual game that these stars of the greatest league in the world have to impress.

So far this season, there are a boatload of defensemen who have impressed. Big time. Chara has never been better, Suter and Ekman-Larsson are earning every penny of their new contracts and Byfuglien, the 270-pound monster on the Jets defense, has made some remarkable plays and has almost single-handedly won two or three games for the third-place Jets.

Must admit, we’ve been impressed with a number of NHL defensemen this season, but here are the 10 players we believe should be considered for the 2013 Norris Trophy (in order):

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

THE TOP FIVE

1. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins: The 25-year-old from Montreal is having a remarkable campaign. He has three goals and 25 assists and leads all defensemen in scoring. He’s 6-foot-, 200-pound and was a third round draft pick (62nd overall) of the Penguins in 2005 who has developed into one of the best players in the game. He plays 26:15 a game and is a plus-12 on one of the best teams in hockey. When you are one of the best players on one of the best teams, you’re pretty good. To this point, Letang gets my No. 1 vote for this year’s Norris Trophy (one has to worry about the injury he suffered on Sunday, however).

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

2. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins: It’s the reach, always has been. Every top player from Sidney Crosby to Steven Stamkos says the toughest defenseman to play against is Chara, simply because of the reach. He’s won the Stanley Cup, the Norris Trophy and played in the Olympic Games. The 6-foot-9, 255-pound, 14-year veteran has six goals, seven assists and is plus-14 this season. He plays 24:36 per game and he’s made Dougie Hamilton one of the best young defensemen in the game. He’s also one of the toughest players in the game and will not back down from anyone. If Letang isn’t the Norris Trophy winner, Chara is.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes.

3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes: The best young defenseman in hockey this season. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound 21-year-old from Kariskona, Sweden, has helped make the Phoenix Coyotes one of the top teams in the West (yes, they are officially ninth, but they are only two points out of sixth and four out of fourth). He averages 25:09 per game and has three goals and 14 assists to go with a plus-eight. He can skate, move the puck and plays hard in his own end. He plays like a guy who has been in the league longer than two full seasons.

Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild

4. Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild: He got the big contract from Minnesota and, for a while, the experts wondered aloud if he would respond with a vengeance or a whimper. Chalk one up for vengeance. Suter’s Wild has moved into first in the Northwest Division and third in the West and he’s played a major role. A former first-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators, Suter has two goals and 21 assists in 21 games and plays 27:16 minutes, the highest average ice time of any player in the NHL.

Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets

5. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets: Big, strong, fast and exciting, Byfuglien used to be a power forward and then moved to defense after he left the Blackhawks – the year after Chicago won a Stanley Cup. He is all of 6-foot-5, 270-pounds and was an eighth-round draft pick out of the WHL’s Prince George Cougars in 2003. He has developed into what one Eastern Conference called, “the most exciting player in the NHL.” He can rush the puck, has a huge shot and is not afraid to spend entire shifts behind the opposition’s net. He has four goals and 13 assists, one game-winning goal and three-power play goals and on three occasions has either set up the winning goal or scored it. The guy can play, but because he’s in Winnipeg – even though the Jets are third in the East – he won’t ever get the votes from the writers that are necessary to win a major NHL award.

Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks.

Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks.

THE SECOND FIVE

6. Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks: A lot of observers on the West Coast believe Beauchemin is having a Norris Trophy season. He has two goals and 14 assists and is a terrific plus-17. Anaheim is second in the West and on a team that’s 20-3-4, he’s the best defenseman. A third-round draft pick of the Canadiens way back in 1998, he’s developed into one of the steadiest defensemen in the NHL. The 32-year-old jouneyman is having the best year of his career.

7. Slava Voynov, Los Angeles: A 23-year-old from Chelyabinsk, Russia, Voynov averages 22:19 a game and was sensational in last season’s run to the Stanley Cup. Just 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, he’s a strong skater with a good shot and an ability to clear the puck quickly. He’s become one of the great second-round picks in Kings history, but then again, he played 61 games in the AHL when he was 18 and he’s been able to develop on a defense that includes some of the top young D-men in the game. This year, he’s the fifth-leading scorer among defensemen with four goals and 15 assists in 27 games and he’s also a solid plus-10. He’s had two game-winning goals, as well.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues.

8. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: The 6-foot-3, 205-pound righthanded shot from King City, Ont., was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft. Only 23, Pietrangelo didn’t really burst onto the scene. He played a couple of years with Canada’s national junior team and then became a regular in St. Louis in 2010-11. He has five goals and 13 assists in 27 games this season while averaging a team-high 25:46 in ice time each game. He’s a great, young player and if he stays healthy, he will win the Norris Trophy one day.

9. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks: The Norris Trophy winner in 2010 when he led the Hawks to a Stanley Cup, he’s been very good the past two seasons, but not great. He was nicked up last year but still finished with 40 points in 74 games and was a plus-15. This year, playing on defense on the hottest team in hockey, Keith has two goals and 13 assists and is a plus five. Now 29, he plays 23:54 a game and is still one of the best defensemen in the NHL

10. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators: He’s 6-foot-4, 233 pounds and is the Preds leader. A former second-round draft pick, he’s been the best player in Nashville for seven seasons and is the best player again this season. He has four goals and 11 assists in 28 games (he has 14 points in his last 15 games after a slow start). He’s a plus four and plays 25:38 a game. He has been a back-to-back Norris Trophy runner-up and was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team in each of the past two seasons. At 27, he’s one of the best defensemen in hockey

Shea Weber, Nashville Predators.

Shea Weber, Nashville Predators.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings, P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens, Kimmo Timmonen, Philadelphia Flyers, Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis Blues, Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens, Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins, Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning.

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