OPPORTUNITY KNOCKED FOR NORRIS
Senators centre looks back on the surprise Sharks trade that brought him to Ottawa
The telephone rang on a September afternoon and on the other end of the line was San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson calling to let Josh Norris know he'd been dealt to the Ottawa Senators.
“First of all, I was so caught off guard,” the Senators centre recalled in an interview as he wrapped up his rookie season in the NHL last week. “I had no idea that I was going to get the traded.”
Selected No. 19 overall by the Sharks in the 2017 draft, Norris, then 19 years old, hadn't even started his pro career or pulled on a jersey and already he had been moved. A key piece to the deal that sent captain Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks on Sept.
13, 2018, Norris was having a nap before practice at the University of Michigan when he got the news.
“Doug Wilson just explained that the trade had gone down and I was going to be going to Ottawa,” Norris said. “I was kind of confused and it was kind of a lot in one day.”
Norris's parents Dwayne and Traci were only 90 minutes away at their Michigan home so the next morning his father drove up to have lunch with his son. Dwayne, a former NHLer who won a silver with Team Canada at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, wanted to let his son know that getting dealt to a team that wanted him was a positive.
“He told me this wasn't going to change me,” Norris recalled. “He told me that I was going to just keep moving forward and I was going to have a great year this year. He told me we'll just kind of see what happens and that a lot of guys get traded throughout their careers. He was really good for me, and I still remember that chat and it helped me a lot.”
Dwayne, the director of hockey operations for Total Package Hockey in Detroit — a school that players attend to further their education and work on improving their game — can recall that discussion like it was yesterday.
“The message was when San Jose was trying to acquire one of the league's best defencemen there's going to be chips that have to be given,” Dwayne said. “One of the things that Ottawa had said, and you don't know this until the deal works itself out, is that Josh was a big part of it and an exciting part.
“It's funny how things can turn quickly, San Jose was still in the middle of being a Western Conference contenders, and if you're looking at it from Josh's perspective, you're thinking they're deep. Where does that can get kicked down the road for you when you've got Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture? They had a lot of players. They were deep and in those situations the young guys have to really wait their turn.
“My advice to him was about opportunity. I told him to go where you're wanted and Ottawa was rebuilding and there was going to be opportunity unless they made a lot of big trades and pickups in free agency. At the end of the day, the timing has to be good and I felt like there was a lot of spots up there for grabs. If you stay on this path by making improvements and working, then they're going to give guys opportunities.”
And, Norris can look back now, two seasons into his pro career and know he's made the most of his chance.
Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion, chief scout Trent Mann and the rest of the staff felt Norris had to be part of the deal if Karlsson was to end up in San Jose. They had seen plenty of potential in Norris's game and after coming back from the world junior championship in Vancouver in 2018, Dorion raved about the level Norris played at.
Unfortunately, Norris suffered a shoulder injury with Team U.S.A. at that tourney that would end his season. He made the tough decision to turn pro and knew he'd have to work his way up through the ranks after missing so much time but felt he could make an impact with the club's AHL affiliate in Belleville during the 2019-20 campaign.
He finished with 31 goals and 61 points in 56 games with Belleville and was an AHL all-star.
“It gave me all the confidence in the world, especially at the start of the season, I was coming off shoulder surgery and I had been out doing rehab for six or seven months,” Norris said. “I had a lot of time off from the game and I wasn't too sure how the game was going to go. I got put in good spots,
“I played with Drake (Batherson) and Rudy Balcers for the most of the year and it really helped that we had a really good team. I played well in the fifth or sixth game and from there my confidence took off.”
Norris gives a lot of credit to Belleville coach Troy Mann and former assistant Colin Chaulk for his development. It's not hard to see that Norris has good hockey sense, plays well defensively, is strong in the faceoff circle and if you watch many of the 17 goals he scored in his rookie season, they're a result of going to the net.
To call Norris's performance with 35 points in 56 games with the Senators a surprise wouldn't be the right description to use. He's been a bit of a revelation because of his play on both sides of the puck. Coach D.J. Smith handed him a different challenge every night against some of the top centre's in the game and Norris just took it on.
Did Norris always succeed? Of course not, nobody is perfect. But he didn't back down, either. One night it was Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the next night it was Connor McDavid
and the Edmonton Oilers in the all-Canadian division this season. No challenge was big or too small for Norris and he met them all.
As Smith noted during the season, the more Norris could handle, the more he got.
“I've been put in good spots,” Norris said. “D.J.'s trusted me against the other team's top line for pretty much the majority of the season. My game has grown because of that, and so has my defensive game, I'm not easy to play against and I've been good at faceoffs. I just try to do a lot of little things that don't make me fun to play against.
“I definitely pride myself on that and that's definitely the kind of player that I want to be going forward. I want to be a multi-dimensional player who plays a lot of different parts of the game and does a lot of different things. As a centre, that's what you need and what your team needs. That's the person and the player that I want to be. I relish the challenge of playing against those guys. Those are the best players in the world.
“I feel I can hold my own out there and when I do have chances to take the bucket to create offence I try to do that and make plays so I really enjoy the challenge.”
That's why some in the organization feel the sky is the limit for Norris. He has exceeded expectations in his first two seasons in pro, and though there's tough competition for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, he has put himself on the radar screen unless those who cast ballots aren't watching Ottawa games.
There has been no shortage of talk that the Senators could use a No. 1 centre, but it's been stated in this space several times that those answers will come from within. There's no reason to believe that Norris can't be that guy if his career continues to take the kind of trajectory it has so far.
“He's an extremely hard worker,” Dwayne said.
“When you see him, he's always smiling and he loves the game. The one thing I've said to him, and all my kids, is don't take the game for granted. Getting there is one thing, but staying there is everything and he's embraced the moment.
“He believes in himself and he believes he's as good as anybody
else. That's a big deal.”
FAMILIAR FACE HELPED NORRIS
The day Josh Norris was dealt to the Senators, it didn't take long for his friend Brady Tkachuk to welcome him to the fold.
A former teammate with the U.S. National Development Team program, Tkachuk was happy to have his buddy join the same organization that had drafted him.
Now, as the Senators prepare to try to take the next step next season, they're teammates, roommates with rookie winger Tim Stuetzle and even closer friends.
“It helps a lot,” Norris said. “He keeps things light. It's definitely nice to have someone I'm so close with here. He's one of my best friends and it's kind of cool how everything has worked itself out. When I first got traded here, we talked right away that day to where we are right now.
“We're linemates, we're teammates and we spend every day with each other (during the season). He's been so great for myself and Timmy as well. It's pretty cool how it's all worked out.”
Tkachuk, Norris and Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes spent a lot of time together with the U.S. NDTP from 2015 to 2017.
Tkachuk's father, Keith, a former NHLer, got an apartment where Brady and Norris lived during those two years while the Hughes family was nearby.
“With the trade, you've got to look at optimism in different ways, and you've got to be productive to survive in that league and you've got to be a good player,” said Dwayne.
“(Norris) spent a lot of time around hockey people that were in the business. He learned how to act, and work.
“It made a big difference plus he played with Brady and he knew the quality of person he is and the player. That, in turn, gives you confidence. You've played with him, you've had success with him. … Brady was young and big and strong and he's an incredible, high character kid and he's a leader.
“Does it give you confidence? Sure, but you also play with a guy who's arguably their all-around best player.”
I told him to go where you're wanted and Ottawa was rebuilding and there was going to be opportunity.