LAS VEGAS – You won’t find anyone, at least in pro sports, having a better month of June than Ryan O’Reilly. Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues? Check. Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP? Check. To top it off, at the NHL Awards show Wednesday night in Las Vegas, O’Reilly was named the Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward. Talk about a whirlwind of good news.
“I haven’t really had time yet to reflect yet on the whole year,” O’Reilly said Wednesday night. “It’s been crazy to think where I was last year to now. It’s just amazing how things can change and be where I am. My focus right now is to enjoy this time and savor every minute of it. But I am very proud of myself that I was able to do these things and be a part of them, and I’m proud of my family and friends and coaches that I’ve had that have helped me along this journey.”
He became the first player in 17 years to win the award the season directly after being traded. O’Reilly was part of a blockbuster deal last July 1 in which the Buffalo Sabres traded him to St. Louis. The last player to win the Selke following an off-season trade was Michael Peca, who did it after the Sabres dealt him to the New York Islanders in 2001-02.
O’Reilly, who edged finalists Mark Stone and Patrice Bergeron, won more faceoffs than any player in the league, posting a 56.9-percent efficiency rate. O’Reilly logged 20:46 of ice time per game, including 2:00 shorthanded. Among the 365 forwards who played 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5 this season, O’Reilly ranked 55th in shot attempts against per 60 minutes and 44th in defensive zone starts per 60. Rating among the league’s best at making an impact all over the ice matters a lot to him, too.
“I do take a lot of pride in that, and to actually get rewarded for it, I think a lot back to when I was really young,” he said. “My dad always instilled that: put your paddle on every little play, (even if) you don’t have the puck. Find a way to make an impact, and those little details. To finally see it pay off is very special.”
The statistics are strong, to be sure, but it’s not like O’Reilly led the league in every defensive metric. What made his season special was that, while qualifying as very good defensively despite facing opponents’ top lines every night, he also racked up a career-high 77 points spending most of the season as St. Louis’ first-line center. The Selke Trophy is defined as “the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game” by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. But, really, the definition hasn’t described the Selke winner accurately since Guy Garbonneau was winning them in the 1990s. It’s not that the Selke winner can’t be the best defensive forward. He often is. But he’s much more than that.
Excluding Ron Francis in a lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, 25 consecutive Selke winners have scored 20 or more goals. Factoring out Jonathan Toews in lockout-shortened 2012-13, 12 consecutive Selke winners have amassed 50 or more points. Three of the past four have cracked the 70-point mark. This year’s second runner-up Patrice Bergeron has four Selkes and would’ve set an all-time league mark had he won his fifth tonight. According to the Bruins’ Don Sweeney, the 2018-19 GM of the Year Award winner, Bergeron represents everything the Selke has become in todays’ era.
“The award has changed a little bit over time in terms of having put up the amount of points the nominees tonight have done,” Sweeney said. “So it has evolved a little bit as opposed to just a pure shutdown player. But that’s how the game has changed, and Patrice has changed along with that. His role and what he does, playing against the best every night and producing at the level he does, he takes pride in his craft, and we’re just very fortunate as an organization.”
If the Selke Trophy winner every year now is (a) a first-liner, (b) plays 20 minutes a night, (c) shuts down the other team’s top forwards and (d) generates high-end offense, the Selke sure sounds a lot like a second Most Valuable Player Award at this point. Has the line between the Selke and Hart Trophies blurred at this point?
“It’s tough to say,” O’Reilly said. “The names on that (award) in the past, I’ve admired them. They’ve always had very big roles in the league and on their teams.”
Selke finalists O’Reilly, Stone and Bergeron finished 13th, 12th and 15t,h, respectively, in this year’s Hart vote. Anze Kopitar won the Selke last year and finished third in the MVP vote.
The Hart Trophy generally goes to the league’s most dominant player, and no one controlled games like Nikita Kucherov did in 2018-19. But an award for “most outstanding player” exists independently of the Hart. That’s the Ted Lindsay Award, voted on by the NHL Players’ Association. Perhaps there’s a case to be made that, considering the best defensive forward plays so many minutes and makes such an impact at both ends of the ice, he’s as strong an MVP candidate as anyone.
Only one player has taken home the Hart and Selke in the same season: Sergei Fedorov in 1993-94. But don’t be surprised if we see the awards fuse together for one winner some season soon.
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