The Selke Trophy has never been the sexiest of all the end-of-season awards. In fact, there’s probably a reason why in the build up to the eventual announcement of the finalists for marquee awards such as the Vezina and Hart Trophy it was the Selke who had its top three unveiled first. Sure, the Selke isn’t as derided by some as Lady Byng Trophy, but the award given to the league’s best defensive forward isn’t quite as high-profile as the MVP award.
But for those who care about the Selke — and there are a good number of us — there’s usually a lot of love for the nominees and reasonably fierce debate about the merits of the three foremost vote-getters. With the advent of advanced statistics, the debates have only grown fiercer. Instead of looking at just what the NHL’s numbers can provide us, we can now dig into zone starts, quality of competition and possession metrics. We can look at who fared best defensively against the league’s best players and determine who really, truly, deserves to not just be in the Selke race, but take home the trophy.
So, let the debate begin. The NHL announced the three finalists for the award Wednesday evening, with familiar faces Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Kesler being joined this season by first-time finalist Mikko Koivu. But who walks away with the hardware?
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Death, taxes and Patrice Bergeron as a Selke finalist could be the new list of the three givens in life. Bergeron finished fifth in voting in 2009-10, bumped up to fourth in 2010-11 and has been a finalist in each of the past five seasons, winning the award three times. And winning this year could be a big one for Bergeron. With a fourth Selke, he would join Hall of Famer Bob Gainey as the only players to win the Selke four times in their career. (Gainey won the award in each of its first four seasons of existence.)
His Case: Bergeron is among the best play-driving players in the league and there’s no two ways about it. This season, of all players to skate at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, none was as effective in the puck possession game as Bergeron, who boasted a Corsi for percentage of 61.1 percent. Teammate Brad Marchand was the second-best play driver — he played on a line with Bergeron, though — and no other player cracked 60 percent. There’s also the old tried and true metrics. Bergeron was as dominant a faceoff man as the league had, winning more than anyone and boasting the league’s third-best winning percentage at 60.1 percent. He was also credited with 65 takeaways, the sixth-most among all centers, and no Bruins pivot faced a tougher quality of competition on a nightly basis.
Ryan Kesler, Anaheim Ducks
Kesler hasn’t been consistently in the mix for the Selke in quite the same way Bergeron has, but when the Ducks center has been healthy and on his game, he’s usually in the conversation as the league’s best defensive forward. From 2008-09 to 2010-11, Kesler was a Selke nominee each season, going from third, to second and finally capturing the award that third season. He dropped out of the running over the next four campaigns, but made his return — to the surprise of many — in 2015-16. Kesler was the second runner-up, however, finishing behind Bergeron and Anze Kopitar, who won the award.
His Case: Kesler’s case was somewhat murky last season, but that doesn’t hold true this time around. Randy Carlyle relied on Kesler so heavily in the defensive zone that he must have felt like a defenseman at times. Only eight 500-minute players started a greater percentage of shifts in their zone at 5-on-5 than Kesler’s 44 percent. And of all players with at least a 40 percent D-zone start percentage, Kesler’s 51.3 percent Corsi for rating was the third-best. Also, none of the three finalists faced the quality of competition on a nightly basis that Kesler did. He was always out against the other team’s best. In addition, only three forwards in the entire league saw more time shorthanded than Kesler and only two won more faceoffs.
Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
He’s never been a finalist before, but Koivu has generally received some consideration for the award. That said, his fourth-place finish in 2008-09 is surrounded by finishes in eighth, 11th, 17th, 21st, 33rd and 53rd, so it’s not like he’s been a perennial contender. Koivu was excellent in leading Minnesota this season and his defensive prowess gave the Wild a shutdown line, allowing the rest of the offense to go to work. If Koivu were to win, he would be the first Wild player to win an individual award of this magnitude. The only other individual awards won by Minnesota’s players are the William M. Jennings Trophy (Niklas Backstrom and Manny Fernandez, 2006-07) and the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (Josh Harding, 2012-13; Devan Dubnyk, 2014-15).
His Case: Koivu, like Kesler, started more than 40 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, but the puck possession rates don’t fall in his favor. Rather, Koivu falls slightly under the break-even mark, finishing with a 49.7 Corsi for percentage. He does, however, fall between Kesler and Bergeron in terms of quality of competition. The one thing that separates Koivu from the pack is that when he was on the ice, it was his ability to give Minnesota such a great slant of scoring chances. His on-ice scoring chance percentage was nearly 64 percent, he was on ice for less than five chances against per 60 minutes and he generated 71 additional chances for than he saw against at 5-on-5. Bergeron was plus-44 and Kesler plus-40
The Winner: The Selke is always one of the toughest awards to decide, but it’s hard not to lean ever-so-slightly in favor of Bergeron. That’s not just because he’s won it three times in the past, either. Koivu’s scoring chance rate was incredibly impressive, but relative to his teammates, he was at 7.4 percent. Bergeron was nearly 10 percent better than the rest of his teammates. When it comes to possession rates, no one was as good as Bergeron. He also was dominant in the faceoff circle, for those who rate that highly, and he had the 15th-most penalty killing minutes of any center in the league. Bergeron didn’t face the usual competition, but he was as dominant a two-way player as the league had this year. He should join Gainey as the only other four-time Selke recipient.
The NHL awards, which are set to be broadcast in conjunction with the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft, will take place at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena on June 21.
(Advanced statistics via Corsica.Hockey)
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