Patrice Bergeron was the mid-season frontrunner for the Selke Trophy, but his absence for the past month might mean he’s no longer the favorite. If that’s the case, who takes home the hardware as the NHL’s top defensive forward?
Asked at mid-season to select a Selke Trophy winner, not a single hockey-loving soul would have hesitated to name Patrice Bergeron. The Boston Bruins pivot had centered the league’s best trio while scoring at a near point-per-game pace, putting together one of the best seasons of his career and dominating on the dot. Thus, it didn’t seem a stretch to suggest this would be the record-setting season for Bergeron, a campaign in which he surpassed Montreal Canadiens legend and Hall of Famer Bob Gainey and became the only five-time Selke winner in NHL history.
But almost one month to the day after Bergeron was voted by the Pro Hockey Writers Association, the same body that selects the award winner, as the mid-season frontrunner, the Bruins star sustained a foot injury. The ailment has proven costly for Bergeron, too. As of Thursday, he’s closing in on nearly a month of missed action and the timeline for his return is as of yet uncertain. He’s practiced in that time — he skated Tuesday with his teammates — but he remains doubtful to return by the end of the week and some additional rest may be in order with the post-season now a certainty for the Bruins. And when it comes to the Selke, there’s reason to believe the missed time could hurt his case.
Sure, on a measure of a number of statistics, Bergeron’s status as the best two-way player in the NHL is bordering on an indisputable fact. When factoring in offensive production, possession statistics, goals-for-versus-goals-against figures at 5-on-5, shorthanded play and ability in the faceoff circle (the value of which has been hotly debated in recent years), Bergeron reigns supreme among many of his counterparts. Truth is, it’s probably safe to say Bergeron is the most consistent player in the league in about every measure of defensive effectiveness. But with time running out in the season and the possibility that he’ll suit up in fewer than 60 games, history might indicate Bergeron’s Selke hopes could be dashed.
Dating back to 1977-78, when the Selke was first awarded, a number of players have won the award without playing a full season. Bergeron himself has won with a few games out of the lineup, though his win with 79 games played in 2016-17 marked the fewest in any of his four Selke-winning campaigns. Others, however, have missed more than a handful of games. Guy Carbonneau, for instance, won the award in 1991-92 despite missing eight games. Kris Draper won the award even though he was sidelined for 15 contests in the 2003-04 campaign, and Bob Gainey holds the “record” for a Selke-winning season. He spent 16 games on the shelf in 1979-80 but was still named the league’s top defensive forward. The issue, however, is that Wednesday’s game was Bergeron’s 17th absence. That’s one more than Gainey and puts Bergeron two up on Draper, who has the only sub-70 games played Selke-winning campaign in recent memory.
As noted, too, there’s no telling when Bergeron will return. If he misses the remainder of this week and doesn’t suit up until next Tuesday, he’ll have spent 19 games on the sidelines. If it’s this time next week he returns, his combined absences will span 20 games, the equivalent of one-quarter of the campaign. If Boston doesn’t want to risk further injury and lets him rest until the final days of the regular season, Bergeron’s games on the sideline could stretch into the low 20s. And while Bergeron’s missed time doesn’t disqualify him from Selke contention, per se, it assuredly opens the door for a greater conversation about the other options for the award. But if it does happen that Bergeron misses out on the award, who takes his place on stage at the NHL Awards?
The most obvious candidates are Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier and Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar, as they finished second and third, respectively, in the PHWA’s mid-season voting. And based on a number of statistical measures used for this piece to determine a list of deserving Selke contenders — points, possession, chance, shot and goal against rates, on-ice team save percentage, zone starts, shorthanded play, takeaways, blocks and faceoffs among them — both Couturier and Kopitar should be near locks to finish among the top of the voting.
What helps make the Couturier’s case more than anything, despite him having the best year of his career, isn’t his offensive effectiveness, but his ability to drive play. He has maintained Corsi for, shots for, scoring chances for and goals for percentages well above 50 percent — his 62.4 goals for percentage is among the league’s most impressive — in large part because he has been extremely limiting when it comes to attempts against. Couturier also takes a hefty percentage of defensive-zone starts and his play on the penalty kill has been exemplary.
Potentially effecting Couturier’s status as the next-in-line if Bergeron misses out, however, is Kopitar’s overall play. Both offensively and defensively sound, the Kings pivot has been so good this season, and so much better than the rest of Los Angeles’ forward group, that he’s drawing Hart Trophy consideration, too. He measured up well in every metric for the Selke, as well, and was relatively strong in the penalty killing facets. That’s not to mention two potential x-factors in Kopitar’s candidacy. First, will voters consider Kopitar’s overall value and put him ahead of Couturier? And second, does Kopitar’s past Selke win and history of two-way play influence the voting?
There are more than a handful of fringe contenders, too. Panthers center Aleksander Barkov has been excellent in the second half. Likewise, Mikko Koivu, who finished third in voting last season, has been tremendous again for the Minnesota Wild, and the Calgary Flames’ Mikael Backlund should be drawing some attention as he continues to excel at both ends of the ice after a fourth-place finish in 2016-17’s Selke voting. But there is one additional surprise candidate who should be getting far more love: Vegas Golden Knights pivot William Karlsson.
Offensively, there’s no question that Karlsson has benefitted from the statistical aberration that is his exorbitant shooting percentage, but that has completely overshadowed his defensive contributions this season. While his 49-percent success rate on the dot is nothing to write home about, Karlsson has been more limiting in shot attempts against than Kopitar, shots on goal against than Kopitar and Bergeron, is one of few centers with a sub-2.00 goals against per 60 minutes rate and has played roughly two hours on the penalty kill with fairly substantial numbers. Among the 43 centers with 119 or more minutes shorthanded — he’s 17 seconds shy of the 120-minute mark — Karlsson ranks fourth in limiting shot attempts against (95.2), sixth in limiting shots against (51.1), 10th in scoring chances against (54.1) and 13th in goals against (6.01) per 60 minutes. He’s ahead of at least one of Kopitar or Couturier in each category. The capper for Karlsson is that he ranks fifth among all forwards with 72 takeaways at all strengths. Bergeron, Kopitar and Couturier have 48, 46 and 42, respectively.
All of this is to say that Bergeron’s competition, especially as he continues to watch from the press box, is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook. And if it so happens that his missed time changes the minds of some Selke voters, there are a number of players who can more than make their case.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick.)
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