2021 NHL Award Watch: Evaluating The Selke Race

This is the fourth in a five-part series examining the race for the major awards (Hart, Selke, Calder, Vezina & Norris) as the season comes to a close. I have already evaluated the Hart Trophy race, Vezina race, and Calder race. This volume will take a look at the Selke Trophy race and which forwards have played the best defensively this season. Along with the winner and two finalists, there will also be an honorable mention section.

This series will emphasize analytics and take into account other critical elements. In this shortened season, there are some clear frontrunners while other races are very close. Unless something dramatically changes in the final games, this is my final ballot for each award.

Selke Race

The award is given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.

Selke Frontrunners; Foligno, Pavelski & Eriksson Ek
Selke Frontrunner’s Stats (Evolving-Hockey & Natural Stat Trick)

The Selke Trophy is supposed to be awarded to the best defensive forward in the league, but the determining criteria are questionable. Reputation often outweighs merit, and with so many interpretations of this award, it seems more like an open-ended question. The stereotypical winner is a top-six center with a strong two-way game despite that the criteria supposedly focuses on defense.

Marcus Foligno doesn’t fit any of the criteria, but he deserves to win the Selke Trophy. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t include the veteran winger because the award is given to a strong defensive forward who has significant offensive production. Foligno contributes bottom-six offense; however, he has 24 points in 37 games, which is a 53-point pace in an 82-game season. While it’s unlikely he can sustain that in future seasons, his dominant two-way game can’t be ignored. He has been the driving force behind the Wild’s success in 2020-21.

Buffalo Sabres Rasmus Dahlin Minnesota Wild Marcus Foligno
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and Minnesota Wild forward Marcus Foligno (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Foligno’s 4.2 even-strength defensive goals above replacement is the third-best mark in the league. Likewise, his 3.8 defensive goals above replacement ranks fifth league-wide. Both attempt to capture the defensive value of a player into a single number. He allows 1.58 expected goals against per hour at 5-on-5, which is nearly the best rate in the league. He has allowed the fewest high-danger chances per hour in the league, which is not necessarily surprising given his superior defensive game.

Furthermore, his strong Corsi results are a testament to his shot suppression ability. Not only is he effective, but his ability to extinguish high-danger chances is remarkable. It helps that he is on the penalty kill for nearly 30 percent of the time when the Wild are shorthanded. He has maintained his reputation as a defensive stalwart this season while producing offensively at the greatest rate of his career.

The only other player who really has a case to win the Selke Trophy is Joe Pavelski who has produced strong defensive results despite that he plays minimally on the penalty kill compared to his peers. This season, the veteran forward has 4.8 even-strength defense GAR and 3.6 defensive GAR which are both very strong, especially considering his lack of strong defensive numbers in the past.

Joe Pavelski Dallas Stars
Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Pavelski has allowed 1.66 expected goals against per hour which is a little higher than Foligno’s but still is near the top of the league. His 7.84 high-danger chances against per hour is on par with Joel Eriksson Ek and Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins). He’s been an effective shot suppressor and well above his peers in this regard. Pavelski and Foligno are neck-and-neck with minimal difference in defensive results, but Pavelski’s lack of time on the penalty kill compared to Foligno is a huge reason I have him second.

Eriksson Ek is one of the league’s most annoying players to play against because of his stylistic approach as a hard-nosed forechecking defensive center. He is again one of the league’s best defensive centers and deserves some recognition. He has been a staple on the Wild’s penalty kill playing roughly 32 percent of the time they are shorthanded.

Joel Eriksson Ek, Mikhail Sergachev
Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek moves around Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Eriksson Ek has a strong 1.87 expected goals against per hour which is on par with his fellow Selke-caliber peers. His 7.19 high-danger chances against per hour is relatively lower than Pavelski, Phillip Danault (Montreal Canadiens), and Alex Iafallo (LA Kings). His presence on the penalty kill and his defensive presence at 5-on-5 are huge reasons he deserves some Selke votes. That doesn’t include his goal-scoring that reached a career-high 19 goals this season. A lack of offense can no longer be held against him in the Selke race.

Honorable Mentions

Selke Honorable Mentions; Danault, Iafallo, Bergeron & Mangiapane
Selke Honorable Mentions 20-21 Stats (Evolving-Hockey & Natural Stat Trick)

Danault has been one of the best defensive centers in the league this season and has made his case to be a finalist. He and Eriksson Ek could be interchangeable. He has been very effective at stopping the league’s best and has been a two-way force for the Canadiens.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

His defensive numbers speak for themselves as he’s putting up one of his best defensive seasons to date. His presence on the penalty kill, roughly 44 percent of the time that the Canadiens are shorthanded, speaks volumes.

Iafallo might just be the most surprising player here, but he deserves consideration with his strong play. Like the others, he has significant time – out there roughly 40 percent of the time – on the penalty kill for the Kings. He has always been above-average defensively, but these Selke-caliber defensive numbers have come out of nowhere which makes this very surprising.

Bergeron will always be in the Selke race because of his reputation, but he does merit recognition this season once again.

Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He has been one of the best forwards shorthanded among this group while being highly effective at 5-on-5. He continues to be a defensive stalwart and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Andrew Mangiapane (Calgary Flames) is another surprising candidate as his numbers have also come out of nowhere. He is very similar to Iafallo in the sense that he’s been defensively sound in past seasons, but hasn’t been one of the best defensive forwards as he has been this season. He deserves recognition for his strong defensive numbers at 5-on-5 and plays significant time on their penalty kill too.

Final Thoughts

Unlike some of the other races, the Selke race has been very close all season. Foligno deserves to win the Selke Trophy, but Pavelski and Eriksson Ek, along with the honorable mentions, deserve praise for their superior defensive results.

It is important to note that I left out Mark Stone (Vegas Golden Knights) and Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers) because including them would be purely based on their reputation. Both have been above-average defensively, but neither has yielded Selke-caliber defensive numbers and ultimately, don’t merit Selke consideration.

(All data as of May 12 before games & via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick & Hockey-Reference)

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