Recently, the discussion in basketball has been Defensive Players Of The Year and just how exactly certain players ended up with that award. As we watched Rudy Gobert stare blankly from the lane at the Clippers as they constantly kicked the ball out to whomever he was supposed to be guarding outside the three-point line, or watching Giannis Antetokounmpo do whatever it is he does on the defensive end of the floor, some have called for both to give those trophies back (my colleague Carron has spent multiple staff meetings decrying how Draymond Green was robbed, even though we were talking about staff picnics).
Well, I’m here to tell you, hockey doesn’t get it any better.
Sasha Barkov took home the Selke Trophy over the weekend, for best defensive forward. And it’s not that Barkov is a bad player. Far from it. He might be the most underrated player in the league, undone by playing in the hockey outpost of South Florida, and is a Number 1 center that almost every team would gleefully build around. And he’s certainly not bad in his own zone, but best in the league?
For so long, the Selke has just been awarded to whatever Number 1 center also just happened to kill penalties and win a lot of faceoffs (a massively overrated stat, but you’ll get a Molson bottle broken over your head whenever you say that in front of Canadian media). And that hasn’t changed all that much. This is what’s led to Patrice Bergeron to be handed the award four times and being a finalist for it the last nine years. And the thing is, picking Bergeron is never the wrong choice, exactly. He’s probably the league’s smartest player and consistently keeps the puck in the offensive zone, which is certainly one way to play defense. It’s just that Bergeron isn’t always the most correct choice. Throw in a recent fascination with takeaways, which are just catalogued by the home scorekeeper and can vary wildly from arena to arena, and we have some very murky waters.
Hockey lags behind other sports in what has become more important stats to look at, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s just never been stated what voters should be studying to decide who is the best defensive forward.
But it shouldn’t be that hard. We can quantify who’s giving up the least amount of shots while they’re on the ice, the least amount of chances, and how much better they do that than the rest of the team they’re on.
Looking at Barkov specifically, he ranked 14th among forwards with at least 300 minutes at even-strength in attempts, or Corsi against (all stats from NaturalStatTrick.com). He ranked 52nd in expected goals against per 60 minutes. But Barkov started 57 percent of his shifts in the offensive end. Again, keeping the puck in the offensive zone is perhaps the most important thing in hockey these days, but when you’re already starting there most of the time you’re not turning the ice over so much as just maintaining position. It’s not really about defense. As Bergeron has gotten older he’s started more and more of his shifts on the offensive end as well. So is that really measuring defense? A good offense is a good defense, but is that what we’re trying to get after with the Selke?
Of the players to finish top-20 in attempts against at even-strength, only four started less than 50 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone:
- 10th: Pierre-Édouard Bellemare (41 percent)
- 17th: Colton Sceviour (39 percent)
- 19th: Jason Dickinson (45 percent)
- 20th: Tomáš Tatar (45.2 percent)
When it comes to the lowest expected goals against, Bellemare had the best mark of anyone in the league. Marcus Foligno was second, and he was another who started most of his shifts outside the offensive zone. Dickinson was sixth. So these are players that are suppressing attempts and chances against their teams without the cushion of starting most of their shifts 180 feet from their own net.
Of course, it’s not that simple either. Bellemare especially played on a team that overall suppressed shots and chances better than anyone. Foligno’s Wild suppressed chances excellently as well. So we have to dip into players who suppress those things at a much higher rate than their team did. This is where Bergeron usually kicks in, and this season he had the second-best relative Corsi-against per game in the whole league. Again, giving Bergeron this award is rarely the wrong choice. Ryan Carpenter of the Hawks suppressed attempts against in relation to his team more than anyone this past season, and he started 39 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. Barkov ranked 42nd.
When it came to expected goals against relative to their teams, Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault was best while starting 47 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. Bellemare was 10th, Foligno 11th. Barkov ranked 96th. So even though those two played on excellent defensive teams, Bellemare and Foligno were the best defensive players on those teams and in the league as a whole. But they’re also fourth-liners and never get the attention. Barkov was the Number 1 center on a surprise team, and under Joel Quenneville any team would be good defensively, which Barkov benefitted from.
But that’s not how this works. The last time a genuine third or fourth liner whose only duties were defensive won this thing was 17 years ago when Kris Draper won it, and he won it because every Red Wing fan and media person (which was every hockey media person back then) declared that he had to. We also didn’t have these metrics back then. And that hasn’t really changed today. When the Selke doesn’t go to Bergeron, it goes to a player that there’s a lot of buzz about being great in his defensive zone as well as being an offensive star, and that just builds throughout the season. It’s actually shocking that Mark Stone hasn’t won it yet, as he’s always the leader in “buzz about his defensive play,” even though he doesn’t rank really anywhere near the top of any of the categories we studied here (which isn’t to say he isn’t a dynamite all-around player, as he is).
Considering the number of names that pop up, maybe you can’t blame voters for just throwing a dart at a list of #1 centers. After all, this definitely took me a good 20-30 minutes of research, and hockey writers have to go get drunk, after all. Speaking of which, so do I…
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