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Anze Kopitar
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Selke Trophy is handed out every year to the NHL forward “who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.” The nominees for the 2014 Selke Trophy are Jonathan Toews of Chicago, Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles, and Patrice Bergeron of Boston. I will get to their individual cases in a bit.

This is one trophy where analytics should heavily weigh into the nominations. The defensive side of the game for forwards is always hard to compare across the league because there are so many variables. The player has to produce offensively to be considered, that’s a given. How a forward contributes defensively is always a tricky issue, though. There are several questions that deserve consideration, like: Did the player start frequently in the defensive zone? Did the player typically line up against the other team’s top players? Was the player a winger or a center? What exactly is “good” defense, is it playing hard in the corners and being physical or is it keeping the puck away from the opponent so they can’t score? Does the player have a bad goalie behind them or is it not possible to parse the two?

Besides our terrible friend plus/minus, there aren’t many conventional ways to figure out who the best defensive forward is without simply saying “yep, he looks good!” That’s why I rely on the metrics available to compare across players, teams, and conferences.

Here is the case for each of the nominees.

Patrice Bergeron (C) – Boston Bruins

Bergeron finished with his second-highest goal total of his career (30) and cracked 60 points for the fourth time in his career (finished with 62). That doesn’t even begin to describe how impressive his season was.

Boston was the fourth-best possession team in the NHL (54.1-percent FenwickForClose) and tops in the East. Of all their players, Bergeron was at the top of the team at 61.5-percent CorsiFor. Not coincidentally, number-2 and number-3 on the team are his line mates, both of whom are considerably worse away from Bergeron: Brad Marchand – 62.2-percent with and 48.9-percent without, Reilly Smith – 61.5-percent with and 51.7-percent without.

Bergeron started in the defensive zone the second-most of any regular Boston player (and Chris Kelly, who finished ahead of him, only played 57 games) and in the offensive zone less than any other regular Boston player (28.9-percent). He also tied the Bruins second line players for toughest competition faced (TotTm QoC%). For Tuukka Rask, he faced nearly 3 full shot attempts more every 20 minutes at 5-on-5 without Bergeron on the ice than with him. He also had the highest face-off win rate of any forward with at least 1400 taken (58.6-percent). Bergeron also led the Bruins forwards in short-handed ice time.

He played with Zdeno Chara at 5-on-5 for 45.9-percent of his ice time.

Anze Kopitar (C) – Los Angeles Kings

For the seventh straight 82-game season, Kopitar managed to crack 60 points and 70 points for the fourth straight such season. He finished with 29 goals, his highest output since 2009-2010.

Here’s an image from the good people over at Extra Skater. They are a fantastic resource and should be a go-to for hockey fans. This is an image of the deployment (offensive or defensive zone) and quality of competition (TotTm% QoC). The further up-and-to-the-left a player is, the tougher the zone starts and competition the player faced:

Los Angeles Kings 2013-2014 player usage

In the hockey sense of the phrase, Kopitar is quite literally on an island for the Kings.

Kopitar had the lowest rate of offensive zone starts among all regular Kings forwards (33.4-percent) and the third-highest rate of defensive zone starts (30.6-percent). This led to Kopitar having the second-lowest O/D ratio among all Kings forwards (only Jarret Stoll was lower).

Kopitar led all regular Kings forwards in CorsiFor at 5-on-5 at 61-percent and was on the ice for just 25 goals against at 5-on-5 all year (Bergeron was at 29, for what it’s worth). He was also second among their forwards in short-handed ice time, finishing behind Stoll by a whopping six seconds. He also led the entire NHL in CorsiOn, or the differential expressed as a 60-minute rate. It is absurd how good Kopitar was this year, playing all 82 games.

He played with Drew Doughty for 44.5-percent of his 5-on-5 ice time.

Jonathan Toews (C) – Chicago Blackhawks

Jonathan Toews had 28 goals and 68 points for the Blackhawks this year. Toews has now scored at least 23 goals in every season he has played, with that 23-goal low coming last year in the lockout-shortened season.

To pair with what I showed with Kopitar, from Extra Skater again, here’s the same type of graphic but only for the Blackhawks instead:

Chicago Blackhawks 2013-2014 player usage

While Toews did face the toughest competition on his team, there was a fourth line that ate up a lot of the defensive zone faceoffs that Toews didn’t have to concern himself with. There are also peers like Marian Hossa and Michal Handzus who, even though they faced easier competition, managed a lowest O:D zone start rate.

Toews did finish with the highest CorsiForRelative rating for any player on Chicago even though he faced the toughest competition. He finished third in short-handed ice time for the forwards on his team (117:55) and was quite a ways behind the two ahead of him (Handzus, 148:19; Kruger, 206:51).

He played with Duncan Keith for 43.7-percent of his ice time at 5-on-5.

Predicted Winner: Anze Kopitar

This is a bit of a pipe dream. I don’t really see much hope for Kopitar winning this trophy over both Bergeron and Toews but I think he deserves it. I’ll go through my thought process.

Toews played the least with any of the three players’ top defensemen but he also didn’t play a ton on the penalty kill and had a fourth line to insulate his zone starts. He also missed those games down the stretch. It’s nit-picking of course, but six missed games with three guys so closely grouped together can be a deciding factor.

Patrice Bergeron was dominant this year for Boston but he spent the most time with his top defenseman (and maybe the most dominant defenseman since Nicklas Lidstrom retired) and has Tuukka Rask behind him. Playing in the Eastern Conference is also a knock against him.

Anze Kopitar was leaned on in every single facet of the game and managed to play 82 games. He was only on the ice for 25 goals against at 5-on-5 all season (less than one every three games!) and was on his own island in deployment/competition. Leading the NHL in CorsiOn while being your team’s crutch in every phase of the game and still putting up 70 points is ridiculous.

Alternate Nominee: None

This kind surprised me but after I really thought it over, those are probably the best three candidates for the Selke this year. Crosby was a possibility but there’s not a real good case over the other three players. Joe Thornton could be argued but I don’t think I can do that with a straight face.

Mikko Koivu would have been the best bet but having played only 65 games pretty much killed his chances. Realistically, there were three excellent two-way forwards this year and all three are among the nominees.

** As always, thanks to Extra Skater, Behind The Net, Hockey Reference, and Hockey Analysis

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