Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Plekanec Campaign

The Trophy

The Frank J. Selke Trophy is awarded annually to the National Hockey League forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. The winner is selected by a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers Association following the regular season. Voting members rank their top five picks for best defensive forward, and totals are tallied as follows: first place votes get 10 points; second place votes, 7 points; third place, 5; fourth, 3; and fifth place votes, 1 point. The player with the most points receives the award. It has been awarded 33 times to 20 different players since the 1977-78 season.

Bob Gainey won the trophy the first four years of its existence, and most believe the award was created for him in the first place. Gainey played, to quote teammate Ken Dryden, "a powerful, punishing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo." What that meant, in less poetic terms, is that Gainey played against every other team's top players and made it his job to prevent them from scoring. Other players in other generations had done that job and done it well, but Gainey was outstandingly good at it. He was the guy the Soviets called "the best all-around player in the world" in an era that included Guy Lafleur and Bobby Orr. The NHL had to recognize that in some way, and the Selke was born.

The History

Nobody's matched Gainey's four-year Selke reign, but three others...Guy Carbonneau, Jere Lehtinen and Pavel Datsyuk...have won it three times. After Gainey, the look of the Selke winner changed somewhat. In the 29 years since Gainey, a 6'2" left winger, last held the title, the trophy has gone to a centre 22 times. Nineteen winners have been smaller men, under six feet tall.

Historically, the Selke winner is an important part of his team as witnessed by his ice time. He had to keep pace with the opponent's most prolific players, so, on average, he played about 20 minutes per game. Some guys played even more, up to 24-25 minutes.

Selke winners are also durable. Only two have missed more than ten games in his winning season over the 33 years of the trophy's history: Gainey and Jere Lehtinen.

If the winner is a centre, as it almost always has been, he tends to be excellent on faceoffs. Guy Carbonneau, for example, was well over 50% on the draw throughout his career. Other winners, like Doug Jarvis, Rod Brind'Amour and Michael Peca were well-known faceoff specialists.

Before the lockout, there were few official numbers on which to quantify the play of a defensive forward. Faceoffs (which would help explain the high number of centres who have won the Selke) and PK numbers were pretty much it. That's why so many winners were also superior penalty killers. Craig Ramsay, a Gainey contemporary and considered to be one of the best defensive forwards of the era, was on the ice for only 367 PP goals against in his 1070 career games. He had 27 shorthanded goals, versus only 17 on the PP. Two-time winner Sergei Fedorov was even better; he was on the ice for 293 PP goals againt in 1248 games. His 36 shorthanded goals place him eighth all-time.

Plus/minus is also used as a benchmark for judging a player's defensive ability, despite its inherent shortcomings. Most Selke winners have good-to-excellent plus/minus numbers, with the stunning exception of Steve Kasper's -18 in 1982.

In recent years, Selke winners tend to be good two-way players, able to put up points as well as prevent the other team from scoring them. Since the lockout, the lowest point total by a Selke winner is 70. Rick Meagher's 25 points is the lowest total a winner has posted; Doug Gilmour's 127 the highest.

The Contenders

The NHL is much more thorough in its stats keeping now than it was in the early days of the Selke. These days it tracks how many times a player gives the puck away, and how often he takes it from an opponent. It counts blocked shots and hits, which are all important elements of playing sound defensive hockey.

The better stats open the ranks of vote-getters to a group of players who might not have been on the list a few years ago. Pavel Datsyuk is enjoying a three-year run as Selke winner right now. Interestingly, though, he didn't even appear in the top ten for votes until he actually won his first trophy in 2008. Datsyuk scores high with his faceoffs, at 55%, 56% and 54% in the last three years. He's also led the league in takeaways in two of the last three seasons. He does not, however, play much on the PK, which has always been an important consideration for a Selke winner.

Along with Datsyuk, Vancouver's Ryan Kesler has appeared in the top ten of Selke vote getters in two of the last three years, finishing second last season. Philly's Mike Richards was second to Datsyuk in 2009, fifth in 2008 and seventh last year. Henrik Zetterberg has been top ten in all three years but never won. Other high vote getters in the last three years include Mikko Koivu, Patrick Marleau and Travis Zajac, who all got top-ten nods in two of the last three years.

Last season, however, a new guard moved into the mix. Joining Datsyuk and Kessler, the top five in Selke voting included Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron.

Where Plekanec Ranks

Last year, Plekanec finished 26th in Selke voting, with 14 points that included one second-place nod, two fourth place and one fifth. Comparing him to last year's top-five, one could argue he should have finished higher, if stats are an accurate measure of worthiness.

In shorthanded minutes played per game, Plekanec was ahead of Datsyuk, Bergeron, Toews and Kesler. Only Staal played more PK than Pleks. In shorthanded points, however, Plekanec's lone shortie ranked behind everyone except Datsyuk who had none.

Pleks had more takeaways than Staal, more blocked shots than Staal, Bergeron, Datsyuk or Toews and the same number of hits as Bergeron. He was better on the draw than Staal, but his 49% was well behind the other top-five vote getters. His plus/minus was better than Kesler's. He scored the same number of points as Datsyuk and more than everyone else in the top five except Kesler.

In short, Plekanec stands up extremely well in comparison to last year's top five candidates for the Selke and flat-out beats one of the nominees, Jordan Staal, in takeaways, blocked shots, faceoff percentage and points scored. He beat the winner in PK minutes played, PK points scored and shots blocked.

The Vote

The problem with the Selke is that it's a very subjective award. The numbers help voters decide, but they don't tell the whole story. Pavel Datsyuk will be credited with a takeaway if he pokes the puck off an opponent's stick in a scrum behind the net. Plekanec will get one if he races to catch up with a 2-on-1 against, lifts the puck-carrier's stick from behind and scoops the puck away, starting a rush back the other way as he did against the Canucks earlier this season. Only someone who watched the game would know the difference.

Sportswriters who vote for the Selke winner see their own beat teams every night, but they only see the others a few times a year. That makes it hard to judge a category that can really only be understood by watching a player regularly. So most will see that Datsyuk leads the league in takeaways and has a faceoff percentage of 55%, and they cast their votes for him.

Because the Selke is so subjective, and its related stats so inconclusive, there are typically dozens of candidates who receive votes every year. Last season, for example, 20 guys got Norris Trophy votes as best defenceman. Eleven goalies got Vezina votes, and 29 players got at least one point in Hart voting as league MVP. In comparison, 60 players got Selke votes. They included Alex Ovechkin, Chris Higgins and Bobby Ryan; none of whom automatically come to mind when you think "fabulous defence." Given the undefined qualification for the award, many voters will just shrug and pick the guy who won it last year, or the one who's getting the most buzz around the league, even if they don't really know all that much about his game.

Plekanec is a quiet person who doesn't look for media attention. He flies under the radar so well it will be very difficult for him to attract the attention of voters unless his team decides to actively campaign for him.

The Reality

The numbers show Tomas Plekanec should be not just considered for the Selke Trophy, but that he should rank very near the top of the list. Watching him routinely strip the puck from the best players in the game as he shuts them down, or break up an attack with an interception and PK breakaway, underlines his defensive prowess. Yet, voters who see him six times a year at the very most...and many who see him only once...will get to choose the winner of the award. To that end, they'll look at numbers, and consider reputations. Plekanec has all the numbers except faceoff percentage, which may play against him on paper. His reputation is one of quiet diligence, which won't work in his favour when competing against guys with bigger names.

If he works on his faceoffs and if his team gets behind him with a video highlight campaign for voters, he should have a chance. In the case of the Selke, introduced to honour a workhorse, team-first kind of player, there could be no better heir to Bob Gainey.


Mandy said...

Excellent article. Pleks is quietly the best at what he does, and I kinda like that he flies under the radar. Your article should be included with the video highlights and sent to every voting member.

Anonymous said...

The players should vote for the awards, then they would truly be worth winning. We fans see Pleks 82 + games and are biased too. As a Hab fan I would love to see him win it. He certainly must be top five. Now, if the Habs were to win the Cup or at least get to the finals, he would get a lot more respect from the voters. All the top fivers come from high profile successful teams. That's the key.

HabsFanLeafLand said...

I definitely believe Plekanec is an underrated player and is no doubt one of the league's elite two-way players... not sure if he's the best, but he's an elite player for sure. "Elite" in my opinion can be defined as someone who does well no matter the situation or who he plays with, while making those around him better.

This will be a nice link to the article I'm currently drafting. Plekanec should be on the All-Star team. I'd love to see him win the Selke or at least receive a nomination, but let's star with the All-Star team.

Raj said...


As always, excellent points.