It’s a simple question: can Mike Richards, captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, win the Selke trophy for top defensive forward for the 2008-09 season? The current holder of the Selke, Pavel Datsyuk, and Vancouver center Ryan Kesler might have a say in the matter. Everyone seems to think that Pavel Datsyuk has it in the bag, but could they be wrong?
Without question Mike Richards is the best special teams player in the NHL. He gets a fair amount of his goals and assists playing the point on the Flyers first powerplay unit along with Kimmo Timonen. Just being allowed to play the point on the powerplay as a forward shows how much confidence the coaching staff has in your defensive abilities, but that isn’t enough to separate Richards from the pack since many other forwards in the league do the same thing. The thing that does give Richards the edge over some of his competition is his play on the penalty kill. It’s not to say that other top forwards aren’t given PK time to help their team, but in many cases other players around the league that are more defensively responsible are given time on the penalty kill even though they don’t score often. Still Pavel Datsyuk and Ryan Kessler kill penalties. How does that make Richards the best special team player?
Well Richards was on a team that was on the penalty kill the most by a wide margin, the Philadelphia Flyers, and the forward for the Flyers that was on the ice for most of the time spent killing penalties. Because of his efforts along with other skilled two-way forwards like Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter the Flyers finished the regular season 6th in the league on the penalty kill. That isn’t all he did though. It’s nice to have your players kill off the penalties, but it takes a rare breed to turn a man-down situation into a scoring opportunity. The Flyers, thanks to the efforts of players like Gagne, Carter, and of course Mike Richards led the league in shorthanded goals with 16. Of those 16 Mike Richards scored 7 which led the league in such tallies in 2008-09. After the Flyers captain two other players were tied for 5 shorthanded goals. Together Pavel Datsyuk and Ryan Kessler this season managed just three shorthanded goals combined.
Scoring goals while shorthanded though isn’t enough to sell it. That’s offensive in a sense even though it’s created from playing solid defense. So how do the shorthanded stats compare when it becomes about giving up the least amount of goals? Richards finished 14th among forwards on the PK based on time killing penalties per goal scored. He averaged three minutes and twelve seconds of time on ice killing penalties between goals. Kessler was in fact ninth with three minutes and nineteen seconds between goals. Pavel Datsyuk on the other hand was fifth on his own team behind Draper, Clearly, Zetterberg, and Filppula averaging only one minute and thirty-six seconds of PK time between goals. When compared to the rest of the forwards in the NHL, Datsyuk tied for 150th. On top of that, out of the top 15 the only Richards and Kessler scored over 50 points this season. Kessler had 59 and Richards had 80 making them the only two true offensive weapons to finish in the top 15 in penalty killing.
On top of Richards’ incredible season of special teams he also managed to set some records in the process. During a stint in February the Flyers’ captain tied the NHL record with a shorthanded goal in three consecutive games. One of these goals happened to be a 5 on 3 advantage for the New York Rangers. A blocked shot in front during the 5 on 3 kill landed the puck right on Braydon Coburn’s stick who zipped it up to Mike Richards as he blew by both point-men. He skates in alone and shuffled it past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for his third 5 on 3 shorthanded goal setting a new NHL record at the age of 24.
In four full seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, Richards’ has scored 3, 4, 5, and 7 shorthanded goals respectively for 19 total. In the same span no one else even comes close as he averages 4.75 SHGs a season. Right now Wayne Gretzky holds the SHG record with 73 in 19 seasons of NHL play. Mark Messier is second with 63 in 25 seasons. If Mike Richards continues at this pace he will have scored 90 by his in his 19th season, and should he play to 25 seasons he will have nearly 119. It has only been four seasons so far, but it does demonstrate the Mike Richards is playing with some elite company.
This Selke Trophy though is all about this year. We already know that Richards was on one of the best PK teams in the NHL and led the league in shorthanded goals. We know what a great special teams player he is. That’s great, but can he really beat the Selke favorite from last season, Pavel Datsyuk, who is renowned as the best defensive forward in the game today?
Well, he was tied for the league lead in blocked shots by a forward with 90. Kesler had 70 and was ranked 7th among. Pavel Datsyuk on the other hand had only 33 and was tied for 116th among NHL forwards. On top of that Richards only finished 31st in the NHL in hitting by a forward with 147 while scoring more points than anyone above him other than Alexander Ovechkin. Datsyuk finished 173rd in hitting with a poor total of 76 hits, and Kesler finished even lower with only 72 hits earning him 184th place in the NHL. While hitting doesn’t necessarily designate defensive ability the league recognizes it as a defensive stat because it creates turnovers, gets other players off the puck, and demonstrates good positioning. If you ask any coach what the first rule to defensive play is he will say positioning. Blocked shots, hits, and takeaways demonstrate solid defensive play perfectly. So how did our Selke finalists finish in the all important takeaway category?
In this one Datsyuk did a little better finishing second among NHL forwards with 89. Richards though was right on his heels finishing in 3rd place with 83. Kessler finished 7th with 74.
The other big category in naming the Selke winner is the player’s plus-minus rating. There is a reason though that there is a separate plus-minus award given out. The stat, while useful, does not always measure defensive ability. It does to some extent, but good forwards playing on a team with good defense and/or good goaltending will always have a better plus-minus even if they weren’t necessarily as good defensively. The player can also counter the stat by being on a line that scores a lot of goals or of course by scoring a lot of goals himself. Richards scored less goals and was on a line with teammates who scored less goals than Datsyuk. Of course Kesler benefitted from scoring the least since he was not on a line with big time scorers and did not put in many goals himself. It’s a very deceptive stat that by no means tells the entire story. Still it is useful for it’s own purposes. That being said this was Datsyuk’s most dominant category. He finished with a incredible plus 34, good enough for 3rd place among forwards. Richards finished 17th with a plus 22, and Kesler finished tied for 66th with a plus 8.
Still you cannot deny Mike Richards his due. On top of many of his stats being better than Datsyuk’s defensively, anyone who has watched the Flyers’ captain play knows how hard he works on both ends of the ice. That’s not to take away anything from Datsyuk who is incredible in his own right, but Richards is always first on the backcheck, hustles for loose pucks, plays the body and not the puck, is physical which helps cause turnovers as well as helping others clear the zone, makes safe outlet passes out of the zone, kills the majority of penalties on the most penalized team in the league, and gets in the way of whatever shot he can. Datsyuk may be the favorite, but in this league Richards is on par with him defensively if not his superior. Many will debate this, but with as many stats coming up with the Flyers captain on top as there are you have to question whether or not Datsyuk should be the favorite.
Two different molds of a defensive forward stand ready to receive the Selke award this season. Will it be the previous champion or the special teams ace?