“Who’s that guy?”
That was the general reaction of discouraged Sens’ fans in September 2018, the day the club acquired Josh Norris in package deal with San Jose for Erik Karlsson. Though the young centreman had been drafted in the first round by the Sharks the year before, he was hardly a household name and 19th overall selections aren’t exactly sure things. At the time, it felt like the club should maybe have held out for more established young forwards; guys like Timo Meier or Tomas Hertl. Fans didn’t know a thing about Norris and most didn’t want to. All they wanted was to keep Karlsson, one of the best players in franchise history, now being hailed as the final piece in San Jose’s Stanley Cup puzzle.
It’s funny how quickly things can change.
Just 18 months later, the Sharks have shockingly sunk to the bottom of the NHL standings, now looking forward to 7 more years of an injury-prone Karlsson (from age 30-36) at $11.5M per season.
Meanwhile, the Sens part of this deal looks better every day. They aren’t on the hook for that contract; they still have the steady Chris Tierney; the intriguing Rudolfs Balcers; a 2020 first rounder (between 1st and 6th overall); a 2021 2nd rounder (from Karlsson re-signing); a 2020 third rounder (from the Dylan DeMelo deal) and goalie prospect Mads Sogaard (Sens dealt San Jose’s 2019 2nd rounder to move up and draft Sogaard 37th overall in 2019).
Oh, yes. They also have Norris – the Oxford, Michigan kid who’s now on everyone’s radar – seriously percolating as a prospect, and possibly the best part of the deal.
On May 28th, Norris was the runaway choice for 2019-20 American Hockey League Rookie of the Year. While no one overlooks an AHL freshman who just finished third overall in scoring, Norris’s story was more than stats. His seasonal performance was everything a coach or GM looks for – the complete package: good size, excellent skater, good vision, great compete level, hockey IQ (both ways) and a great shooter – with one of those fierce, top of the circle, one timers that fuels all good power plays.
The mental side of Norris’s game is also strong, overcoming early adversity in Belleville. He not only had to adjust to a new team, a new city and his first taste of pro hockey, he had to adjust to a surgically rebuilt shoulder while knocking off nine months of cobwebs. At the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championships, Norris suffered shoulder injury with Team USA that ended his NCAA season with Michigan. He went nine months without playing a meaningful hockey game.
“I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” Norris told an Ottawa media scrum in February. “But I’m sure that maybe affected me a little bit. My confidence for sure wasn’t at an all time high at that point.”
Norris limped out of the AHL gate, a 4th liner with no points in his first 4 games in Belleville. It was understandable, of course, but not at all where anyone wanted him to be. He wasn’t surprised to turn it around and have the season he did.
“I think I’m a confident kid. I was put in a position to succeed down there. Obvioulsly, we have a great team (in Belleville). It’s pretty easy when you’re put with great players and put in good spots to play.”
For long stretches this season, Norris got to play with top prospects like Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton and Rudolfs Balcers. He finished the abbreviated campaign with 31 goals and 61 points in 56 games. His keys to goal scoring success?
“I don’t know. Try to keep it simple and shoot the puck. I think I got off to a little bit of a slow start but I just kinda stuck with it. My confidence came back and I just started shooting and the puck started going in for me.”
Norris and Batherson are both high on the Senators’ list of top prospects and no one would be surprised to see both on Ottawa’s opening day roster next season. But the similarities don’t end there. Both players are dual Canadian-American citizens who spent the better part of a decade growing up in Germany. Their fathers – Dwayne Norris and Norm Batherson – both played pro hockey over there, even playing against each other for one season.
The connections don’t end there. Even before the deal, Josh had played in the past with Sens prospects like Logan Brown, Christian Wolanin, Jonathan Gruden, and Brady Tkachuk. They all represented Team USA and all have fathers who once played in the NHL. Sens’ GM Pierre Dorion was well aware of this ready-made chemistry and, after past team issues like the Uber scandal and the Hoffman-Karlsson dispute, Dorion probably values camaraderie now more than most. On the day of the deal, the GM announced to the media straight away, even before any discussion of hockey ability, that Norris is Tkachuk’s best friend.
Over three seasons, Norris and Tkachuk played over 170 games together at various levels of the US development program, including two medals together in International Ice Hockey Federation play: the 2017 gold at the World U-18’s (which Norris calls the best memory of his career so far) and bronze at the 2018 World Juniors.
At home, the hockey commonalities weren’t quite as seamless. While the younger Norris was a star product of Team USA’s development program, his father was Captain Canada, winning gold at the 1990 World Junior Hockey Championships in Helsinki when he scored the winning goal against Czechoslovakia. He also won a silver medal in 1994 with Team Canada at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
The friendly hockey rivalry probably got a little awkward on the school front when Josh chose the University of Michigan. Not only was his dad a former star at rival Michigan State, his mom Traci was a Spartan as well. Josh says he liked the idea of following their path to State but inevitably chose Michigan because he felt more at home. It also didn’t hurt that the Wolverines were a higly ranked team at the time he was choosing schools.
Norris got hit first taste of NHL hockey on February 22nd, 2020 in a 3-0 loss to Montreal. He was noticeable on every shift. Wearing number 37 (Bobby Ryan has the #9 he wore in Belleville), his skating was fast, smooth, and tireless. He didn’t look nervous, was often first on the forecheck and even picked Carey Price’s pocket behind Montreal’s net. He quickly hit Anthony Duclair – right on the tape – but Price scrambled back wildly to deny Norris his first NHL point.
Norris won 9 of 14 faceoffs, took 4 shots and logged 15:13 of ice time. He didn’t get on the scoresheet but, when you combine the performance and then observe the way the Sens used him that night (ice time, power play, good linemates), it’s clear the club considers Norris a VIP in their rebuild.
Meanwhile, that game would be the final one for J.G. Pageau, the Senators’ top centre last season. He was traded two days later to the New York Islanders. So Norris’ first game in Ottawa would be Pageau’s last; a symbolic passing of the torch at centre ice as the Sens continue to skew younger…and better.