Is it Mikael Backlund’s Turn to Win the Selke Trophy?

Mikael Backlund is quietly having an award-worthy season for the Calgary Flames. He is already Calgary’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually “to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey”. In addition, the Swedish forward is putting up numbers this year indicative of a possible Selke Trophy nomination.

The Selke Trophy is given each year to the National Hockey League’s best defensive forward, and it has been won by just six different players over the last eleven seasons: Rod Brind’Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes; Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings; Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks; Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins; Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks; and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. While both Brind’Amour and Datsyuk have retired from the NHL, the latter four players are all still active and in the conversation for this prestigious award.

However, this season seems to be the start of a period of transition for this award. While there have only been five different nominees for the Selke over the last four years (Datsyuk, Kesler, Bergeron, Toews, and Kopitar), a number of new faces have emerged in the conversation, including Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, and Backlund. These players’ emergences in the conversation have been partially enabled by the significant drop-off of many of the aforementioned Selke favourites of the past. While Kesler and Bergeron are still having terrific seasons, Kopitar’s production at both ends of the ice has dropped significantly, while Toews has been inconsistent at times for the Blackhawks this season.

With all of this having been said, let us take a look at the individual cases of the most promising candidates for the Selke Trophy.

This article will be somewhat statistic-heavy, so before all of the number-crunching begins, it is important to understand what all of these figures will mean.

GP/G/A/Points: These are just the player’s pure offensive statistics for the season*.

Points/60: This is a measurement of a player’s point-scoring production for every 60 minutes of ice-time he plays*.

Defensive Zone Starts: This is the percentage of defensive zone starts for the player. A defensive zone start is quantified by any faceoff that a player takes on the defensive side of the centre line. A percentage above 50% indicates that the player starts in his defensive zone more often than not.

Corsi Against: Corsi is a measurement of shot attempts, so Corsi Against is simply the percentage of shot attempts against a player’s team while he is on the ice.

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): This is how well a team does at stopping the puck while a certain player is on the ice at full strength, minus the team’s save percentage as a whole at full strength. This creates a relative statistic, one which determines a change between a goaltender’s save percentage with a certain player on the ice versus his save percentage in general. The higher the resultant figure, the better the player is relative to his team.

*By definition, the Selke trophy is not judged with offensive prowess in mind; however, in practice, recipients of the trophy are typically very solid offensively. As such, the Selke has developed somewhat of a reputation in recent years as the award for hockey’s best two-way player, and voters typically seem to consider production at both ends of the ice when determining who to cast their ballots for.

With this having been said, let us examine the individual cases of seven Selke candidates.

Statistics accurate as of March 26, 2017.

Ryan Kesler

GP/G/A/Points: 74/20/31/51

Points/60: 1.92

Defensive Zone Starts: 65.7%

Corsi Against: 48.1%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -0.9%

Mikko Koivu

GP/G/A/Points: 72/18/35/53

Points/60: 2.30

Defensive Zone Starts: 64.0%

Corsi Against: 50.5%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -0.1%

Patrice Bergeron

GP/G/A/Points: 72/17/32/49

Points/60: 2.14

Defensive Zone Starts: 44.3%

Corsi Against: 38.1%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -2.1%

Sidney Crosby

GP/G/A/Points: 68/42/40/82

Points/60: 3.62

Defensive Zone Starts: 38.2%

Corsi Against: 46.4%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -0.7%

Jonathan Toews

GP/G/A/Points: 65/20/35/55

Points/60: 2.70

Defensive Zone Starts: 43.4%

Corsi Against: 47.4%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -0.3%

Anze Kopitar

GP/G/A/Points: 67/11/35/46

Points/60: 1.97

Defensive Zone Starts: 47.0%

Corsi Against: 44.3%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -1.8%

Mikael Backlund

GP/G/A/Points: 74/21/29/50

Points/60: 2.32

Defensive Zone Starts: 64.0%

Corsi Against: 45.1%

On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (relative): -2.2%

Those are a lot of numbers. Let’s turn them into words.

For the purposes of this article, Mikael Backlund will be the reference point. We will go through the case of each player, and compare their qualifications to Backlund’s. This should give a good idea of the merits of each individual case.

First up is Ryan Kesler of the Anaheim Ducks. Kesler is having a monster season with Anaheim, putting up big offensive numbers while being the team’s go-to defensive specialist. He has been relied upon by far the most out of any of the above players, explaining why his Points/60 figure is so low at 1.92. Even still, he has already recorded 50+ points on the year, something which will please voters. Kesler’s Defensive Zone Starts (DSZ% from here on out) and Corsi Against (CA%) are both quite comparable to Backlund’s, with Kesler slightly ahead in the former category and Backlund the leader in the latter. However, Kesler is way ahead of Backlund in On-Ice 5v5 Save Percentage (5v5 rel SV%), as the Flames’ Swede brings up the rear in this category when compared to all of the other players being discussed.

Secondly is the Wild’s Mikko Koivu, whose stats are eerily similar to Backlund’s. One area of discrepancy between the two players comes in CA%, where Backlund has a significant advantage over Koivu; however, Koivu more than makes up for this in 5v5 rel SV%. It’s already been mentioned that Backlund is by far the worst player of the seven in this category, and it doesn’t help his case against Koivu when the Wild centreman is by far the best of the seven being discussed. While none of these players have positive relative save percentages (likely because they, as players on the ice for 17-20 minutes per game, are on the ice for a lot of goals being scored for either team), Koivu’s -0.1% relative percentage is the closest anyone in this article gets to being in the black, so to speak. Backlund is quite a comparable player to Koivu by any other metric, however.

Patrice Bergeron is not quite as good of a scorer as Backlund is, and doesn’t start very much in the defensive zone. However, he is a Corsi beast, putting up the lowest CA% of anyone on this list by far. This could be explained away through the fact that, as a player with a tendency to start more of the time in the offensive zone, he has more opportunities to put pucks towards the net. In addition, much like Backlund, Bergeron’s 5v5 rel SV% is quite poor for a so-called “defensive specialist”. Make no mistake, though, this is a terrific defensive player, especially when it comes to preventing Corsi attempts, but his overall game is lacking in multiple areas compared to Backlund’s.

While, at first glance, he may seem like a bit of an outlier on this list, Sidney Crosby is no stranger to receiving Selke votes. He finished seventh in voting last season, and is putting on a show at both ends of the ice this season. Crosby’s offensive prowess needs no explanation, but he is also quite capable at the other end of the ice. Yes, Crosby barely starts in the defensive zone at all, but even still, his Corsi against is quite good and his 5v5 rel SV% is decent, compared to the group. Truth be told, Crosby’s defensive stats aren’t terrific compared to the other six players listed here; however, he is still bound to receive Selke attention as the NHL’s best player (who also happens to have okay defensive numbers).

What exactly is Jonathan Toews? He could barely score to start the season, was named to the NHL’s list of the Top 100 Players of All Time (to much media derision), and ever since has been on fire offensively. One constant has remained throughout all of this, however: strong defensive play. Toews’ skill in his own end has never been in question, and now that he is putting up better numbers in the offensive zone, he is getting more attention in the Selke race. Truth be told, his defensive numbers are not terrific compared to others on this list. Toews, like Crosby, barely starts in the defensive zone, and has a high CA% compared to guys like Bergeron and, yes, Backlund. However, his relative 5v5 SV% is quite good, at -0.3%. Let us not discuss Backlund’s figure in that particular category.

Like Toews, reigning Selke winner Anze Kopitar struggled mightily offensively to start the season. Unlike Toews, however, this slump hasn’t really worn off. Kopitar has just 11 goals this season, and pro-rated to 82 games (a number which he will not hit, for he has missed time due to injury this season), Kopitar is on pace to lose nearly 20 points on his total of 74 last season. Voters will be turned off because of this. His other numbers are fairly unremarkable as well, with the exception of his impressively low CA%. He has a low DSZ% and, while it is not quite as low as Backlund’s, his 5v5 rel SV% is by far the second-lowest on this list, at -1.8%.

Now, for Mikael Backlund himself. Backlund is putting up the most points this season of anyone not named Crosby and Toews on this list, an impressive accomplishment considering that this list also features the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar. However, his other statistics are also quite impressive. His CA% is quite low, at 45.1%, while his DSZ% is incredibly high, at 64.0%. As previously mentioned, though, Backlund’s 5v5 rel SV% is incredibly low, at -2.2%. It is by far the lowest such figure on the list, and the only real outlier on his statline.

Even so, Backlund’s case is as good as any for Selke Trophy consideration. He has an impressive combination of offensive prowess and solid defensive numbers comparative to his peers. It would not be a shock whatsoever to see Backlund a finalist for the Selke come later this Spring.

Until then, who do you think will win the Selke, and who will be the other two finalists? Sound off in the comments section below.

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