As a voting member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, the Selke Trophy has been both encouraging and discouraging.
On the negative side, the voting has leaned hard into reputation-based voting in far too many years. The Selke Trophy has been given to the “forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component” in the NHL 37 times. Sixteen of those winners were one of five players: Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Jere Lehtinen, Pavel Datsyuk or Patrice Bergeron.
Voters have also developed an odd litmus test for Selke candidates, much like how the Lady Byng has become the de facto “high scorer with few penalty minutes” award.
Selke winners have to have a:
1 – Faceoff winning percentage among the League’s best.
2 – Positive plus-minus rating, and especially a double-digit one.
3 – Offensive stats that are above average, even though this shouldn’t be a primary factor in defensive prowess.
On the positive side, PHWA voters have made an effort to dabble in analytics to make a Selke nominee’s case. Corsi and possession metrics are seen as mandatory in 2017; one hopes that further context will follow.
The three titans of the recent Selke voting are all having self-acknowledged substandard years, and might fail the basic tests.
Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, a two-time winner, has a 57-percent faceoff winning percentage, but he’s a minus-2.
Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, second in the NHL at 59-percent on faceoffs, is a plus-2 but only have 29 points in 52 games after posting 68 in 80 games last season.
Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, who won it last season, is at 52.2-percent on faceoffs, is a plus-4 but has 32 points in 47 games.
Now, the perception is that none of these three are going to win the Selke this season.
Which is, frankly, ludicrous, in one specific case:
That of Patrice Bergeron.
On top of his faceoff prowess, Bergeron is leading the NHL in Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 at 62 percent. He’s second in the NHL for expected goals-against per 60 minutes at 1.82, which is better than his numbers last season.
Now, unless we’re in the Upside Down where Bergeron no longer gets credit for making his linemates better, but instead it’s David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand that are carrying him, this is impressive.
A “substandard” year for Patrice Bergeron is still exponentially better than a career year from an average player. It’s like trying to find a Stanley Kubrick film without merits, or one that pales in comparison to, say, Zach Snyder’s best.
That said, there seems to be enough digital ink spilled on other candidates that a changing of the old guard seems likely. Here are a few:
THE FAMILIAR NAMES
Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks
A previous winner in 2011 and a finalist four times, which is why one would make him the front-runner now – he’ll have the reputation thing on his side.
He’s third in the NHL in faceoff percentage (57.9). He starts over 42 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone (second most in the NHL for players with over 600 minutes), gives up 6.64 (5v5) scoring attempts per 60 minutes, which is No. 10 in the NHL for players with at least 700 minutes TOI.
He’s got a positive Corsi (51.46) and 42 points in 54 games. So yeah, he’s going to be a finalist, as it’s been a year-long lovefest for Kesler.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
Speaking of reputations …
There’s a hard sell happening lately for Koivu, the 33-year-old Wild forward. The highest he’s ever reached in the Selke voting is No. 4 in 2009, but otherwise has been out of the top 10 in every year but 2009 and 2008.
The sell began with his coach, Bruce Boudreau:
“Who’s got better numbers for a defensive forward than Mikko?,” Boudreau after the Wild’s morning skate at Rogers Place Tuesday. “He plays against every team’s top line. He’s plus-24, he’s got 35 points. There’s nobody in the league that has better numbers for what you’re asking him to do. He kills every penalty. He takes every big faceoff. Everything a defensive forward is supposed to do, he does.”
Koivu has seen some of the toughest starts in the NHL. At 5-on-5 play, he starts in the defensive zone 43.5% of the time- second most in the NHL among regulars. Players who get that kind of assignment usually don’t succeed offensively, but in spite of his tough workload, he’s taken his teammates to new heights. He’s centered Mikael Granlund, who leads the Wild in scoring, and Jason Zucker, who has set a career-high in points playing alongside Koivu.
That’s pretty good. And when you compare Koivu’s defensive zone starts to previous Selke winners, you get some surprising results. In his 2015-16 campaign Anze Kopitar only started 30.6 of his 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone. When Patrice Bergeron won in 2014-15, he started in the defensive zone 38.2% of the time, which is impressive, but still dwarfed by Koivu’s mark this season. In the year before that? Bergeron won despite taking just 33.8% of his starts in the defensive zone.
He’s also got the faceoff numbers (54.8) and the zone starts (43.74 in the defensive zone, most in the NHL), although his Corsi is below par (49.08) – understandable, given how the Wild play under Boudreau.
(It’s also an interesting conundrum for Selke voters that penalize Bergeron for quality of linemates: Have you seen what Jason Zucker and especially Mikael Granlund have done this season?)
Koivu could catch a wave with Boudreau and Devan Dubnyk in postseason awards voting. He’s been excellent, but this seems very much like an “excuse to give him some past due” situation.
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals
Speaking of “past due,” the fact that Backstrom hasn’t cracked the top 10 in Selke voting in his career is some weird anomaly where anyone in Ovechkin’s aura is automatically a defensive liability in the eyes of dullards.
Once again, he’s 52.4 in faceoffs and playing a great two-way game. Although not as great as we’ve seen from him: He’s 49.16 in Corsi percentage, his lowest in five years. And his scoring changes against per 60 minutes has jumped by nearly two, from 6.79 last season to 8.94 this season.
Like Koivu, there’s always a chance that under-the-radar greatness could finally be rewarded thanks to a dominant team, and the campaign is in full swing for Backstrom. But there’s also a sense that a Selke win this season would be like Pacino winning for “Scent of a Woman.” Hoo-wah.
Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings
The old war horse (36) is quietly having an outstanding season on the defensive end, within context. And that context is that he has a Corsi Relative to his teammates of plus-3.9; the Red Wings have their best save percentage (.936) with on the ice at 5v5; and he has by far the best expected goals against (2.19) and scoring chances against (5.97) than any other Red Wing. He’s also 50.7 on faceoffs.
This isn’t the year for Zetterberg to be a dark horse candidate, considering the fortunes of his team – it’s a bit like rallying to the cause of a non-playoff team’s coach for the Jack Adams. But a stick-tap to a guy whose back problems and advancing age had us thinking he was a non-factor. But he’s doing all of this in 2016-17 playing 19:20 per night, tops on the Wings for forwards.
Were it not for Pavel Datsyuk’s shadow, he might have one of these already.
THE PATIENTLY WAITING
Ryan O’Reilly, Buffalo Sabres
There was a brief moment in 2014 when O’Reilly looked like a Selke mainstay, finishing sixth. He hasn’t been better than 12th since then.
This season, he has 31 points in 41 games and a plus-8, winning 57.8 (!) of his faceoffs. He’s one of the only positive possession players in the Sabres at (50.94) for players with over 610 minutes TOI. He has an outstanding 5.79 scoring chances against per 60 minutes, vs. 7.36 SCF.
Again, if the Sabres were a winning team, this would be a totally different story for one of the League’s best two-way players.
Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
Again, it’s a bit of a joke that Staal has only been a Selke finalist once in his career, given what a force he’s been defensively.
At 58.7 percent on faceoffs and a rock-solid 56.39 percent Corsi, that might change this season given that many pundits are starting to take notice as the Hurricanes inch closer to the playoff bubble.
Staal’s stats are comparable to the rest of the group and are second only to Bergeron in most aspects. These other three players are considered some of the best defensive forwards in the league. And Jordan Staal’s stats, while nice, are nothing dazzling; he isn’t blowing away the competition. And that would be correct, to an extent. The thing is though these stats need to taken in with a little bit of context.
That context is the quality of teammates that each player plays with. Patrice Bergeron has David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand on his wing. Anze Kopitar has Jeff Carter. Jonathan Toews has Marian Hossa probably one of the best defensive wingers in his own right. Let’s look at some of Jordan Staal’s past linemates this year: Joakim Nordstrom, Brock McGinn, Andrej Nestrasil, and Elias Lindholm.
While none of those players are terrible, I wouldn’t consider any of them close to the level of talent as those wingers named above. That’s what makes Jordan Staal’s numbers so special.
He’s an elite defensive talent, and might have just enough offense at 28 points in 41 games to get the voters’ attention. Especially if the Hurricanes make a serious push during the voting.
THE NEW FACES
Mikael Backlund, Calgary Flames
Mikael Backlund has never received a vote for a postseason award. Which is incredible because, like, everyone gets a Selke vote eventually. Even Ovechkin has!
In the game of life, the man they call “Backs” is winning big these days. So much so, that it’s time for Backlund to be included in the Selke Trophy discussion, as the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game.
“I think this year he should be mentioned with some of the top two-way centres in the league,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano, unsolicited.
“He’s been that good. He’s been playing against the best players in the league night in and night out. And he’s doing it at both ends of the ice.
He’s second on the team in Corsi percentage (54.71) and is starting 39.49 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone at 5-on-5. He’s also facing the best quality opponents for any Calgary forward.
Backlund has been outstanding, but again, you’re asking a guy who never received a postseason awards vote to surpass some known quantities. Not easy.
Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs
Kadri’s an interesting case study, as he’s gotten some accolades for playing a shutdown role against big names this season. There’s no question he’s found that niche on the team after a few seasons of strong production but little solidification of his role. He has it now, and Editor In Leaf see’s him as a Selke guy:
It wasn’t purely choice that led him to this decision either. Realistically he isn’t going to be on the top-two lines due to the wonderkids coming through. You’d also imagine with more focus on defense that his offense would natural tail off, quite the opposite. With 20 goals, he has already tied his career best, with essentially half the season to go.
Using the Corsi stats, his CF60 is 63.11 and CA60 is 59.97 meaning the Leafs are averaging 3 more shots with him on the ice. You can use that to suggest that he is also stopping 3 shots with his defensive capabilities.
Kadri is over 37 percent in defensive zone starts, by far the highest for the Leafs’ forwards this season. So not only is he effectively doing the heavy lifting defensively, he’s doing it so the younger players don’t have to. That said, faceoffs (45.8) are going to kill him in the analysis.
THE WILD CARD
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Yes, the best offensive player in the NHL this season is also the best defensive forward on the Edmonton Oilers.
Carolyn Wilke had a good piece on the Selke dark horses, and made the McDavid case:
Of course, it’s his “non-traditionalness” that will likely keep him off of most ballots, which is understandable. His one minute of penalty kill time per game, while effective, isn’t very much compared to other guys like Kesler (nearly 3 minutes) or Brad Marchand (almost 2 minutes).
And it’s hard to say that he’s “deployed in defensive situations” when the reality is that coach Todd McLellan would have him on the ice for all 60 minutes if he thought he could. This is in stark contrast to guys like Kesler, Koivu, Silfverberg and Granlund, who are used almost entirely as shutdown players.
And let’s be frank, McDavid’s feet are moving too fast for him to block shots, another hallmark of traditional defensive play.
Now, he’s not going to win. He’ll get a few Edmonton-centric votes, but he’s not going to be in the top 10. Still, file this away: The last time we had a legitimate threat to win the Selke and the scoring title in the same season was Sergei Fedorov in 1996, who won the award and finished ninth in scoring.
Connor McDavid is going to accomplish a great many things in his career. Could that be one of them?
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