April 20, 2010
Of the NHL Awards this season, the Selke Trophy race for best defensive forward had what could be best described as "quality depth." The Professional Hockey Writers Association members rank five candidates each; we doubt you'd find many ballots that were player-for-player similar.
It's also an award where, in theory, reputation and hockey sabremetrics collide. There's been huge leaps in NHL stats availability and analysis over the last decade, thanks to the Web.
Now, you can go on NHL.com and easily locate non-box score numbers like giveaways and takeaways. Now, sites like Behind The Net are quantifying defensive value based on quality of competition and other factors in a way that completely redefines the Selke race as something more than "famous checking center has great plus/minus, wins award."
We imagine the snubs are going to get more attention than usual: Patrice Bergeron(notes) of the Boston Bruins, selected to Team Canada for his defense at forward and sporting a 58-percent faceoff percentage; Jonathan Toews(notes) of the Chicago Blackhawks and his 57.3 faceoff percentage; Travis Zajac(notes) of the New Jersey Devils, who was one of the best two-way centers in hockey this season; Nicklas Backstrom(notes) of the Washington Capitals, who some feel can make the same claim; and if you value glamour stats, what about Alex Burrows(notes) at a plus-34 and with seven short-handed points?
So who takes this year's Selke?
Why Pavel Datsyuk Deserves the Selke: There are going to be some catcalls about this being a legacy selection, considering Datsyuk won the last two Selkes and got off to a rocky start this season (just a plus-4 in the first two months). But his faceoff percentage was 55.1 percent, which tied with Kesler. As for other numbers, the Detroit Free Press noted that his 132 takeaways were 49 more than any other player. He's also frequently matched up with top competition.
As for the criticism of Datsyuk that he doesn't play on the penalty kill, Chris McCosky of the Detroit News made the following case:
This sentence was actually written in somebody's blog (and again, I am not trying to pick a fight with the blogosphere, just disputing the point)--
"The main argument against Datsyuk winning the Selke Trophy is that he is not used in enough of Detroit's prime defensive situations."
Not used in enough prime defensive situations? He plays against the opponent's best line just about every shift. He takes 80 percent of the defensive zone faceoffs late in close games. He doesn't play much on the PK because Mike Babcock has to find some place for him to catch his breath. And, the Wings have enough depth that he doesn't have to play on the PK. Trust me, come playoff time, Babcock is going to run Datsyuk out there for the important kills.
Kesler ranked second in the League in takeaways (83), appeared in all 82 games and averaged a career-high 19:37 in ice time, second among Canucks forwards to Henrik Sedin(notes). The speedy center ranked ninth among NHL centers in face-offs taken (1,401), winning a team-best and career-high 55% of them (772), led the Canucks in total shorthanded time (218:20), dished out 95 hits and recorded 73 blocked shots
He was also second on the Canucks in shorthanded ice time for forwards with 2:39 (based on at least 20 games played). There's no question Kesler is defensively elite, and deserves this nomination based on the numbers and in watching him play. And lord knows this highlight may have been on the minds of some writers, even if it shouldn't count towards the Selke.
Why Jordan Staal Deserves the Selke: We imagine this selection will cause the most debate, because (a) he plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and hence is a lightning rod for criticism when it comes to NHL honors and (b) because there were so many other qualified candidates with better numbers.
Let's start with the strongest number: 3:20. That's his short-handed ice time per game, which is topped only by Jay McClement(notes) of the St. Louis Blues (3:44) and Todd Marchant(notes) of the Anaheim Ducks (3:23). The Penguins had the ninth-best kill in the NHL.
He's rated well among the best defensive forwards, according to James Mirtle (M.D). We've seen marginal improvement in faceoffs (he's up to 47.9% on the season, which would be a career best). Staal's plus/minus is +19, which while impressive, isn't overly so. But compared to his team, where only 3 regulars are a +10 on his team, it shows that Staal has been the best on his team.
The Selke tends to be a reputation based award, and even though it's for defense, a guy has to have offensive numbers, which Staal has with 21 goals and 27 assists. Staal also has 2 SH goals and 1 SH assist, which while not gaudy, are at least some measure of production short-handed.
The Puck Stops Here has also made the Staal-for-Selke case. If you value shorthanded time and effort as a measure of defensive prowess, then Staal might be your guy. But then you'd have to explain to us how you'd support Henrik Sedin as the best five-on-five player in hockey while disparaging Sidney Crosby(notes) and Alex Ovechkin(notes) for their power-play point totals ... assuming that's you.
Who Will Win the Selke: It's neck-and-neck with Datsyuk and Kesler, and we give the edge to Datsyuk. The name-brand thing is a factor, but so is the fact that at the time of the voting, the Red Wings looked like a Western Conference juggernaut-in-waiting. And face it: It's not like he doesn't have the credentials.
Incidentally, I had a vote as a member of the PHWA this season, and this was my ballot:
1. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings
2. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
3. Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
4. Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils
No Jordan Staal; as you can see, I'm more of a 5-on-5 guy for this award, and in the games I watched the Penguins (and there were a lot of them this year) I wasn't blown away by Staal.
If I had to do it again, I might swap Zajac or Marleau for Toews, who certainly warranted at least a top-five finish. But I really think Bergeron should have been Top 3, based on his faceoff percentage (58 percent) and overall strong two-way play this season against tough competition.
Again, in hindsight, I may have slotted him third. But I'd have him in my top three.