Should more players like Hossa & Crosby be considered for the Selke?

by Apr 24, 1:56 PM

When the finalists for the Selke Trophy for hockey’s best defensive forward dropped today - Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, as you likely heard - a few interesting tweets followed.

One was a gripe from Jeff Marek:

One was a comment from Dan Bylsma regarding Sidney Crosby and Quality of Competition, via Craig Custance:

And two were from Corey Pronman, about what defense in hockey really is:

That’s a fair question about the concept of defense, but I tend to think it’s simpler than that when it comes to giving out the actual Selke Trophy. It’s plainly awarded “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game,” which draws a clear line. The protocol:

Do you have the puck? (Y/N)

If you’re in a position to circle “N,” you’re engaging in the defensive aspects of the game. If you have the puck, while yes, that’s good defense, you’re engaging hockey’s offensive aspects, not puck acquisition, positional play, physical pressure and the rest. More on this in a bit.

Those tweets leave us three defense-related questions:

1) Is there positional bias against wingers? Are they unfairly passed over?

2) Should Sidney Crosby be considered more seriously for the Selke?

3) Selke Trophy aside, can we count offense (keeping the puck in the opposing end) as defense?

In order:

1) Is there positional bias against wingers? Are they unfairly passed over?

It’s 100% understandable that centers would dominate Selke nominations. They take draws which affect possession, they play down low in the D-zone like defensemen, and they’re the only guys responsible for all 200 feet of the ice. The job of the winger is to look for women with low-cut tops in the lower bowl.

Naturally, a winger would have to be exceptional - beyond exceptional, really - to overtake a centerman. 

This year, one of the Chicago Blackhawks beat writers, Chris Kuc, voted Marian Hossa over Jonathan Toews. That’s a guy seeing the team every game, night in, night out.

Marian Hossa is one of the few wingers I can think of who’s damn close to excelling in the defensive aspects of being a winger to such a degree that he’d warrant consideration.

* The Blackhawks are a positionally sound team with proven players. They trust each other. That means when Hossa’s back first, they’ll leave him to play low without calling for a panic switch. I’d bet he plays low more than most forwards.

* His puck acquisition skills all over the ice might be the best in hockey.

* His physical domination in puck battles (particularly on the walls) leaves the Blackhawks going the right way the majority of the time.

So is there a bias against wingers?

A little, but why they're so rarely considered is generally justified. Of course, that shouldn’t stop us from seriously considering the best wingers out there, and Hossa fits that description.

2) Should Sidney Crosby be considered more seriously for the Selke?

It’s often assumed that the best offensive players are poor defensively. It’s also often assumed that if Toews and Bergeron were unleashed (as in, not so tied to defense), they could suddenly put up Crosby-like numbers.

Well, neither of those things are true. Crosby excels at both ends of the rink, and flying the zone early isn’t going to suddenly make Bergeron/Toews types into a producer like Sid.

So, Selke?

Despite Crosby’s success in the faceoff circle, despite his quality of competition, despite the fact that he’s so effective down low, I wouldn’t vote for him because he’s an anticipator. He thinks so far ahead of the game that he’ll occasionally abandon his guy on a play-reading hunch so he can get a jump on it. He’s right a scary amount, but it does cost him the odd time. Bergeron, for example, isn't cheating anywhere until he's sure the Bruins have possession.

Crosby is probably in my top-10 defensive forwards based purely on his puck acquisition skills all over the ice. From his hand-eye, from his ability to pick pockets, to his ability to read plays, he gets his team the puck far more than your average forward.

Selke winner? Not mine. Great defensive forward? Absolutely.

And finally…

3) Selke Trophy aside, can we count offense (keeping the puck in the opposing end) as defense?

Free from the constraints of award definitions, yes we can.

Did you know Jonathan Toews started a ton of his shifts in the offensive zone this year? Well, he did, and some people think that means he shouldn’t be considered all that special defensively.

The thing is, the Blackhawks are so good in all three zones at pushing play the right way (including Toews, including in his own end) that they all have a silly amount of offensive zone starts. And by optimizing his particular skillset, which includes protecting the puck in the O-zone, Joel Quenneville is keeping the puck out of the Hawks end, and net.

Even if you have a player who’s generally considered garbage defensively - I dunno, think about Alexei Kovalev in his heyday - you may not realize that for all the times that player messes up in their own end, they might be so good with the puck at the other end that they’re helping “defensively” more than defensive specialists.

***

It’s my belief that coaches are becoming smarter about what keeps pucks out of nets, and it isn’t all blocking shots and chipping pucks out.

The “defensive aspects of the game” are how you perform when the other team has the puck and you want to get it back. “Defense” as a whole, nebulous concept, can easily be stretched to include offense.