As the shortened season draws to an end, the case for players and postseason hardware enters the closing arguments phase. Of the NHL awards based on voting, my favorite has become the Selke Trophy. Put simply as "an annual award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game", the Selke as of late has been the thinking-man's answer to the Hart. Where the Hart has become the award given to the best forward for creating offense, the Selke has come to be the award given to the one forward you'd take to shut that guy down without turning things boring.
It's also helped that Pavel Datsyuk is just two years removed from winning three straight and will very likely be a finalist for the award again this year.
Currently, there are three front-runners for the award and about eight or nine also-rans who could find themselves with votes, but aren't likely to sneak any higher than third. The frontrunners are Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, and Pavel Datsyuk.
The also-rans include guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Mike Fisher, Mikko Koivu, Anze Kopitar, David Backes, Bryan Little, Marian Hossa, Derek Stepan, and perhaps Eric Staal.
Of course, Backes was a finalist last year and is still talked about as a deserving guy. Each of these guys has a reason they're not part of the conversation and not all of those reasons are inherently fair. Zetterberg is the 2nd-best candidate on his team, same as Hossa (who is also not a center, which works against him); Bryan Little is just about unknown oustide of Winnipeg; Stepan is too young; Fisher is in an easily-ignored market; Koivu hasn't gotten the recognition; Staal takes too many penalties, and Kopitar sleeps upside-down in a cave.
Before going further, let's get the unfairness of the Selke out of the way early: guys like Jay McClement, Max Talbot, Boyd Gordon, and Eric Belanger don't put up enough points to earn consideration for a defensive award, despite being some of the most-relied-upon penalty killers in the league (what should be the very definition of a defensive forward). None of these guys play nearly as much as the true "two-way" guys who earn their 19+ minutes per night either.
With that said, let's take a look at how the top three stack up.
#37 / Center / Boston Bruins
Jul 24, 1985
|2012 - Patrice Bergeron||36||10||21||31||23||16||2||0||3||99|
Bergeron's Selke Case:
As of right now, this guy's my Selke favorite. Last year's winner is a +23 on a team whose goal differential is +24. He's been on the ice for only 14 goals against all season. That's pretty impressive when you take into consideration that Bergeron spends more than two minutes per game killing penalties for the Bruins. In his first game back, he was on the ice for two power play goals and that drove his GA/60 rate while shorthanded all the way up to 2.41, which is still insanely good.
Bergeron also faces the toughest number of zone starts of the three finalists. 41.9% of his non-neutral zone faceoffs happen in front of his own goalie. It's a good thing that he wins better than 60% of his draws then. Despite all that, he's taken just eight minor penalties this season.
The Case Against Bergeron:
Compared to his teammates, Bergeron gets ice time against weaker competition (which is partially driven by how good he is at making them look weaker by comparison). His points output is a little weak compared to the other two competitors, although not by much; also, Bergeron plays less time per game than both Toes and Datsyuk.
Those excuses pale in comparison to the biggest reason, Bergeron could fail win the Selke: he's only played 36 games after missing two weeks' worth of action with his fourth career concussion. He was able to return Wednesday night against Buffalo, but the time lost and, more importantly, any time it takes to get back up to speed could cost him in this race.
#19 / Center / Chicago Blackhawks
Apr 29, 1988
|2012 - Jonathan Toews||42||21||23||44||27||25||2||2||4||129|
Toews' Selke Case:
Forget the Selke, Toews might be a good candidate for the Hart. Currently 8th in league scoring, Toews holds the advantage over his competitors in points, plus/minus, and NBC narratives about his greatness. Just below Bergeron in faceoff percentage, Toews wins greater than 60% of his draws. He gets more offensive zone draws than defensive ones, but on the best team in the league, there aren't as many of the latter to go around. Comparatively, he regularly plays against his opponents' toughest lines.
For penalty killing, Toews spends 1:23 per game killing penalties and has a GA/60 rate of 4.17 at 4-on-5 hockey, which is very good. He also draws a good number of calls for his team with his blazing speed, his powerful skating stride, and his sometimes-odd neck spasms.
The Case Against Toews:
Chicago's captain has been on the ice for more goals against than both of his competitors at even strength, he just makes up for it with a lot more goals for. For all the good he does at drawing penalties, he also takes more than his competition. Even cutting out the fight he got credited for, Toews puts his team shorthanded more.
Aside from those minor faults, Toews benefits more from the teammates he's been paired with than anybody. Bergeron doesn't have slouches around him (Norris candidate Chara backstopping him has to help), but Toews plays in front of a Norris-winner himself and plays alongside perhaps the only winger in the league who deserves Selke consideration of his own, Marian Hossa. What's more, in an odd way, Toews' candidacy for the Hart may work against him. Since the Selke came into being, no player has won both awards in the same season.
#13 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Jul 20, 1978
|2012 - Pavel Datsyuk||42||13||28||41||15||14||7||0||6||93|
Datsyuk's Selke Case:
If reputations matter (and they do), then Datsyuk's already starting from a strong position. A Selke finalist in every year since 2007-08, the three-time winner is considered to be the hardest player to take the puck from, the smartest player, the most difficult to play against, and the cleanest to play against. What Datsyuk lacks in raw plus/minus, he makes up for by having a +13 rating on a team with a negative goal differential. He wins 55% of his draws, out-corsis tougher competition than both of his competitors, and takes very few penalties while doing so.
He also does all this while sharing more ice time with Justin Abdelkader than anybody else this season. Datsyuk's quality of competition is significantly higher than both Bergeron's and Toews and he plays more minutes than both.
The Case Against Datsyuk:
For one, it's just about impossible to quantify how much harder Datsyuk has had it than his competitors. The numbers tell us that Datsyuk isn't winning as many faceoffs as both Bergeron and Toews, isn't scoring points like Toews, and isn't killing penalties like either of them. In fact, Datsyuk's PK rate effectiveness of 8.91 GA/60 at 4-on-5 is comparatively bad. While I've written before that a lot of this has to do with a terrible save percentage behind him, the raw stats look bad.
Datsyuk doesn't have the low penalty numbers or the high(ly subjective) takeaway numbers to overcome his two competitors based on the stats. The eyeball test and the CSSI tells me he's the best defensive forward in the league still, but I don't have a good comparison for both Toews and Bergeron, since I haven't seen as many of their games and don't do CSSI analyses for those teams.
If Bergeron can come back and play the Bruins' final six games without falling off the paces he's already set, I think this award will go to him for the second straight year. Toews is a very good contender on a very good team and the combination of good team plus Hart consideration might just steal enough votes. Datsyuk deserves to be a finalist and I wouldn't consider it robbery if he were given the trophy over Bergeron and Toews (especially if Bergeron doesn't return to form and Toews wins the Hart), but right now I've got him trailing his competition.