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Could Nazem Kadri ever win the Selke?

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What’s the real difference between the Leafs’ shutdown centre and the three Selke finalists for 2017?

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Frank J. Selke Trophy is an annual award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game. The award is decided by a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers Assosciation, and the three finalists were announced on Wednesday night before the Maple Leafs’ fourth playoff game against the Capitals.

The finalists are Patrice Bergeron, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Kesler.

A look at the story on the finalists provides hints as to how “defensive aspects” is viewed at large. There is a lot of discussion of faceoffs taken and won, blocked shots, plus/minus, and a little bit of Corsi, since Bergeron is there and it’s his best event.

There also seems to be an unwritten requirement that your excellent defensive forward scores a lot of points. All of the finalists are over 50 points this season.

The popular hockey fan’s definition of the award is that it’s for the best two-way centre. And it’s true that in recent years it has been a centre’s award. It was originally Bob Gainey’s trophy to lose, but since his day passed, the award has only occasionally gone to a winger. It usually goes to the top centre on a good team, a high Corsi team, or Ryan Kesler that one time the Canucks were good.

So can Nazem Kadri ever be considered for the award? He finished 38th in the balloting in 2013, and that’s the only time his name ever appears on the list. He’s a new man now to who he was then.

Kesler is back this year, largely on the strength of his points. His other stats seem a little weak compared to Bergeron and Koivu.

No one ever mentions penalty kill work in relation to this award, and yet, like the Norris Trophy, there seems to be a cultural demand that the winner does PK. The power play is for those pure skilled forwards, and we know what they’re like.

Defence is, in reality, a skill. And it’s not one all forwards have. We know some things about hockey in this modern world that we didn’t when this award was created. We understand a little what skills are repeatable.

We also know that generating shots for and suppressing shots against aren’t linked. What that means is that you don’t have players who aren’t on the ice for a lot of shots against simply because they generate offence. The two are separate skills. If a player has a very high Corsi percentage like Bergeron does, it’s because he’s good at both skills.

We also know that who you play with—your quality of teammates—affects your play a great deal and who you play against—your quality of competition—affects your play a lot less.

And Bergeron has some of the highest quality of teammates in the NHL. (I can’t believe I said that about Brad Marchand, but this is where the search for truth sometimes leads us.)

But what about Kadri? He certainly plays a defensive, shut-down role and he has been scoring, so how does he measure up to these three finalists in some real and some perceived measures of defensive skill?

2017 Regular Season Traditional Defensive Stats

Name Points Faceoffs Faceoff % Blocked Shots Takeaways PK TOI
Name Points Faceoffs Faceoff % Blocked Shots Takeaways PK TOI
Patrice Bergeron 53 1812 60 47 65 170:06
Ryan Kesler 58 1793 57 75 22 223:11
Mikko Koivu 58 1699 55 65 39 146:02
Nazem Kadri 61 1134 48 31 58 2:49

All our players have over 50 points, and Kadri has the most. He takes fewer faceoffs overall, but he is second on his team. He’s hurt here by the balanced system that the Leafs play, whereas Boston plays a one line system, and Bergeron is the man on it taking all the draws and pushing his win percentage into exceptional range.

Kadri’s win percentage would have to go up above 50 for him to be seriously considered for the Selke, as foolish as that might be. The effective difference between his rate and Koivu’s is not measurable in a meaningful game effect. Frankly, Bergeron barely rates a golf clap for his skill at faceoffs in terms of what it brings to game outcomes.

Blocked shots seem to have become the modern NHL’s measure of toughness. And the Leafs didn’t used to be shot-blocking team. Last year, they barely bothered, and really, when you’re trying to lose, why risk your ankle bones? This year they are in the middle of the pack in blocks (Boston is second), and Kadri is well down the list on the team. On the Leafs, shot-blocking is largely done by the defenders. On Kadri’s line, it’s handled by Leo Komarov and Connor Brown. He’s never going to meet this measure of toughness unless he “sacrifices his body”. So, I think he’d need to be traded to the Bruins for that to happen.

I included takeaways, because I think that relatively useless number is still valued as a sign of skill at playing without the puck. Likely the more complex takeaways minus giveaways calculation would reveal some ways in which our finalists outmatch a player like Kadri, but suffice it to say, he’s got some but not as many as Bergeron.

The penalty kill might always kill Kadri’s chances at this award. He doesn’t do it, and the perception is that the Selke goes to a player who does. A lot of that is a hold over from the days when top players played the PP, the PK and a lot of five-on-five minutes—Bergeron, in other words—and those days are gone for very good reasons. You don’t win with one star forward and one good forward line.

Now for a modern take on defence:

2017 Regular Season Modern 5-on-5 Stats

Name CF% CA60 xGF% xGA60
Name CF% CA60 xGF% xGA60
Patrice Bergeron 61 44 62 1.79
Ryan Kesler 51 57 55 2.48
Mikko Koivu 50 55 58 1.88
Nazem Kadri 51 59 53 2.58

Everyone on this list is at 50 percent Corsi For except Bergeron, who plays on one of the best Corsi teams going. Using just CF% is questionable to me at the best of times for looking at individual players because there is so much team effect included in it. Using it to look at multiple players on multiple teams is even more suspect. But it’s the first thing mentioned in discussions of Bergeron, and it’s the kind of “fancy stat” usage that is catching on first in the broader hockey community. And remember this award is decided by the PHWA members.

Just looking at Corsi against is interesting, because the Bruins are a top team at limiting shots, the Wild and the Ducks are mediocre at it, and the Leafs are one of the worst teams. And yet Kadri is only 2 and 4 shots per 60 minutes worse than two of these finalists.

The second pair of columns are expected goals, which is just all the shots that happen when a player is on the ice weighted by their likelihood to become goals for or against. This is a more meaningful look at defensive skill because it combines shot suppression with other defensive skills like limiting scoring chances against into one number. And Kadri gets hammered by this. That’s largely because he plays on the Leafs who allow a lot of goals as a team.

For a Leafs’ player, Kadri’s expected goals numbers are the best of all the centres. And we know he plays against the toughest competition, has the toughest minutes of the top three lines, and yet, that’s not how a Selke is determined.

In a way, even without the famous name of Bergeron that comes up in conversation about this award every year, you could simply ask, who is the top centre on the Bruins or the Kings and give the award to him. It’s a team style award. The team has to be a top Corsi team, and they need to be a top-heavy team—so one centre takes a lot of faceoffs, is good at it, and plays well all over the ice.

So if Bergeron is the man, and it sure looks like you have to give this award to him this year, what does he do that Brad Marchand doesn’t?

Bergeron isn’t on the ice alone. And Marchand is a player with a reputation more like Kadri’s than perhaps anyone else. They’re rats. They mouth off; they take penalties; they draw penalties, one more so than the other, and they play an agitator role. Drawing penalties by agitating is a defensive skill, but it’s not a valued one. The Selke is for a certain kind of man, and Marchand and Kadri, and Brendan Gallagher and, in the fullness of time, the very gifted defensive player Matthew Tkachuk are all not that kind of man.

Marchand also isn’t a centre. The focus on faceoffs has ensured only a centre will win the Selke, barring another Jere Lehtinen. But it’s odd, because if you asked me who the best defensive forward on the Leafs is, I’d say Komarov, no contest. And if Kadri can’t ever win this award because he’s more like Marchand than Bergeron, then Komarov will never get a serious look because he never shoots the puck.

So the Selke isn’t for forwards who excel at defence. It’s the award for playing as a dominant centre on a good team that tends to a defensive style. And given that, I hope Kadri never wins it, because I don’t want him traded to the Bruins.