The Frank J. Selke trophy is awarded annually in the NHL to the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. Pavel Datsyuk has won the award the last three years in a row. Seemingly through inertia he's made the finalist list yet again, with Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks and Jonathoan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. This despite missing over 31% of this year's regular season games due to injury.
The trophy was invented to reward the most unsung player in hockey, the checking forward. Unfortunately any attempt to quantify what that means has proven fruitless.
Originally the award was given to the man anecdotally believed, by the members of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, to be the best defensive forward in the game.
Bob Gainey won the first four trophies as he was thought, probably correctly, to be the best checker in hockey. He was fast, mean, killed penalties and played against all the oppositions' top scorers. His team with him as lead defensive forward was very successful.
Unfortunately there was no number you could point to and say this man is the best defensive forward in the game because he always leads the league in this category. Once Gainey retired sportswriters didn't have a player they could default to.
The award was originally designed for a winger, Gainey, but started to be handed out almost exclusively to centers. Over the next 29 years only three wingers—Craig Ramsay, Dirk Graham, and Jere Lehtinen (three times)—have won the award.
The defensive center is a good choice for the Selke because he has a measurable skill, success in the faceoff circle, to rely on. Skill at winning faceoffs is very useful for any forward. More than that it is an important measurable defensive skill.
Bobby Clarke won the award in 1983. He was a skilled defensive forward who killed penalties and was fierce in the faceoff circle. He was also the first first-line center to win the award. He won it despite not being primarily a checking forward. It was hard to argue with his choice as he had a long history of successfully checking some of the most talented players in hockey history. Gilbert Perreault and Valeri Kharlamov were two of the more famous players Clarke shut down in his time. The precedent was set however as a first-line offensive player won the best defensive forward award for the first time.
The award was handed out for the next decade to exclusively defensive forwards until 1993 when Doug Gilmour won. Gilmour was a great, defensively responsible center. He could line up against anyone and shut them down, but his primary job was to be the first-line offensive center for the Leafs.
Gilmour had 127 points that year, seventh best in the entire league. He was not a checking forward. He was a first-line offensive center who was defensively responsible. The award had mutated.
Sergei Fedorov won the award two of the next three years. Coincidentally those were his two best offensive seasons in the NHL. He had 120 points and 107 points both those years. He was a great skater and back-checker but again he was an offensive star who was defensively responsible.
Ron Francis won the trophy in between the two Fedorov wins in the year he was first-line center in Pittsburgh while Mario Lemieux was away receiving radiation treatment for his cancer. Francis didn't win when he was the second-line center. It was apparently becoming necessary to put up offensive numbers to be the best defensive forward in the game.
The choice for the Selke was becoming very similar to the Lady Byng. The Byng tends to be given to the player with a low penalty total who scores the most points. The Selke was being given out to the center who was defensively responsible and scored the most. That was contrary to the original intention for the award. The player who won the trophy was now very seldom the forward who demonstrated the most defensive skill in hockey. Theoretically you should be able to score zero points and win the Selke. That was obviously never going to happen.
The reason for this of course is that it is very tough to figure out who the best defensive forward in hockey is. It's easy to pick a few guys with points who can win faceoffs and are defensively responsible.
Since then the award has gone to a defensive forward, though Steve Yzerman was a mystery winner in 2000. Great player, yes. Responsible, yes. Greatest defensive forward in the game? Not even close.
So enter Pavel Datsyuk. This multi-talented Russian joined the Detroit Red Wings in the 2001-02 season. He started in Detroit in a checking role but soon evolved into an offensive player. After the lockout in 2004 he was the Red Wings first string, more than a point a game, offensive center.
Datsyuk is also a preternaturally skilled checker. He started slow but he evolved into a takeaway machine. If you had the puck he would go get it from you, and once he had it he wasn't giving it up.
Combine a world record 144 takeaways, a +76 takeaway to giveaway differential (next best player, Mike Modano, only had 86 takeaways total) and a 54.4 percent success rate over 833 faceoffs and Pavel Datsyuk was the runaway Selke winner in 2008 and deservedly so. He wasn't really a defensive forward any more. He didn't kill penalties or play on a checking line but he did obviously excel at the defensive part of the game.
Datsyuk in 2008 had an unprecedented year for taking the puck away from other players. That trumped the fact that he was exclusively or even primarily a checking forward. He was still the best, most skilled player in the NHL in the defensive aspects of the game and he won a well-deserved Frank J. Selke trophy.
The next year, however, his takeaway numbers and differential were ordinary. He was great again in the faceoff circle but really should have lost to Loui Ericksson or Ryan Kesler. The sports reporters knew him by this time however so they could choose him and not look like idiots.
Last year saw Datsyuk go takeaway crazy again with 132. He nosed out Kesler in differential 59 to 55. He and Kesler tied with a 55.1 percent success rate in the faceoff circle but Ryan Kesler took 400 more faceoffs than Datsyuk. Kesler moreover still killed penalties. He led his team in shorthanded ice time. He hit more people and blocked more shots than Datsyuk. He still played a checking role on occasion where Datsyuk really didn't. Darren Helm was Detroit's best defensive forward last year and yet Pavel Datsyuk was the league's best defensive forward. That's a nice problem for some Aristotelean logician.
This year Pavel Datsyuk doesn't have a number you can point to that proves he is one of the league's best defensive forwards. He plays barely 33 seconds a game on the penalty kill. Conversely on his own team Darren Helm kills over three minutes of power plays a game. He's fourth in the league in shorthanded minutes.
The part of Datsyuk's defensive game that sets him apart form other players is his ability to take the puck away from them and keep it. His limited playing time has seen him garner a still very respectable 71 takeaways this year. That puts him tenth in the league. His differential is again a very good +33, but that is only the 13th best total in the league.
He has a 54.6 percent success rate in the faceoff circle. Jonathon Toews and Ryan Kesler had 56.7 and 57.4 winning percentages while taking more than 700 more faceoffs than Datsyuk.
There is nothing else in Pavel's defensive game to recommend him. He doesn't and shouldn't block shots. He doesn't and can't hit people.
Darren Helm has his three minutes a game killing penalties, always plays a checking role, has 46 takeaways and a +26 takeaway-to-giveaway differential. Throw in his 30 blocked shots, 128 hits and reasonable 52.6 winning percentage in the faceoff circle and it's obvious Darren Helm makes more sense than Pavel Datsyuk as the Red Wings best defensive forward, again.
There are easily a dozen NHL players who had better defensive years than Datsyuk did this year. Mike Fisher, Brian Boyle, Nate Thompson, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Callahan and Manny Malhotra lead all forwards in blocked shots. Using a 700 faceoff cutoff Paul Gaustad, Boyd Gordon, Zenon Konopka, Jarret Stoll, Jerred Smithson, Ryan Kesler and Jonathon Toews lead the league in faceoff winning percentage.
As for takeaway-to-giveaway ratio, the league leaders were Jonathon Toews, Bryan Little, Ryan O'Reilly, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Sharp, Rich Peverley, Michael Grabner and Loui Ericksson. Todd Marchant, Blair Betts, Darrol Powe, Darren Helm, Craig Adams and Jay McClement lead all forwards in time on the penalty kill. It's basically the same group with Lauri Korpikoski who lead for penalty kill time per game.
The forwards who deliver the most hits in the league were Cal Clutterbuck, Tuomo Ruutu, Dustin Brown, Matt Martin, Troy Brouwer, Chris Neil and Steve Ott. Datsyuk is near the bottom on most of these lists.
Pavel Datsyuk is an incredibly talented player with first tier defensive skills to go with his offensive ability. Unfortunately he hasn't played enough or done enough defensively to even be in the mix this season. There are a large number of players this year who should have been a Selke nominee ahead of him. Darren Helm would have been an obvious choice.