The Case for Nicklas Backstrom as a Selke Trophy Candidate

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The Case for Nicklas Backstrom as a Selke Trophy Candidate
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 06: Nicklas Backstrom #19 of the Washington Capitals warms up before the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on February 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Typically when one thinks of the Selke Trophy—given to the forward judged to be the best at the defensive aspects of the game— one thinks of Pavel Datsyuk and the home of the two-way forward, the Detroit Red Wings, the team with the most individuals to have won the award.

Last year, Ryan Kesler made a good name for himself by winning the award. Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Pavel Datsyuk were also nominated.

One player who should be on the radar this season for the Selke is Washington's Nicklas Backstrom.

After having a lackluster performance offensively during the 2010-2011 regular season, Nicklas Backstrom is looking to step up his game this season. However, what is really an unsung strength of the Swedish center is his defensive prowess.

The importance of forwards who excel at the defensive aspects of the game cannot be stressed enough. The Capitals have a great role model of what a good, defensively-minded two-way forward looks like in Nicklas Backstrom.

He has never received a nomination for a Selke but he is slowly but surely turning into one of the league's best—albeit unsung—defensive forwards.

Let's go to the numbers for an idea of how Backstrom fares defensively:

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Nicklas Backstrom #19 (L) of the Washington Capitals skates with the puck against the New York Rangers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 20, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

To start with the least convincing of statistics, Backstrom was a plus-24 last season, good for 13th among forwards and tied with Selke finalist Ryan Kesler.

There are two views on the plus/minus rating—some think it's ridiculous and says nothing about a player's defensive prowess whereas others think it holds at least some weight in discussions of a player's defensive abilities. I would side with the latter.

Some players like Alex Ovechkin, who are terrible at defense, have great plus/minus ratings. Ovechkin and Backstrom actually had the same plus/minus rating last season. But my opinion is that a player cannot be considered a quality two-way player or defensive stalwart if he has a negative plus/minus.

All three candidates for the 2011 Selke had positive ratings in the double-digits. Jonathan Toews had a plus-25, Ryan Kesler had a plus-24 and Pavel Datsyuk had a plus-11. So Backstrom would've fit in well with the group in that category.

The next most important aspect of excelling at the defensive aspects of the game in my mind would be shot-blocking. Blocking shots takes a lot of guts, dedication and selflessness. These are the kind of qualities frequently found in Selke-caliber defensive forwards. These qualities are also found in Backstrom.

Nicklas Backstrom blocks two shots while on a three-man penalty kill without a stick against Tampa Bay Lightning

Backstrom stood in front of 64 shots last season, good for 16th among league forwards. Ryan Kesler came in fourth with 80. Toews only blocked 28 and Datsyuk, 20. That puts Toews at 178th and Datsyuk at 266th. Not very impressive. Both Toews and Datsyuk are centers and centers typically block more shots than wingers.

I wouldn't expect a Selke finalist to only block a single shot every four games. That's not a good indicator for Toews or Datsyuk. Guys like Kesler and Backstrom, however, really stand out with the kind of selflessness they show when they put their body in front of a shot.

Backstrom excels much more in that aspect of the game than two of the three finalists for the Selke.

The next statistical column to look at is takeaways and giveaways. It's very important for good defensive forwards to have significantly more takeaways than giveaways as it usually indicates a good awareness and poise with the puck.

To be good defensively, a guy can't be constantly turning the puck over—especially in specific situations like in the defensive end or at the offensive blue line. So, having a good takeaway to giveaway ratio is important.

Backstrom was fifth among league forwards in takeaways with 73 and turned the puck over 42 times. Ryan Kesler was 16th in takeaways with 64 and only coughed up the biscuit 21 times. Toews really excelled in this area as he put up a second-best effort with 93 takeaways and only 30 giveaway. That's really an impressive ratio for Toews. Datsyuk went 71-38.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 06: Nicklas Backstrom #19 of the Washington Capitals takes a face off against Craig Adams #27 the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on February 6, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Again, Backstrom fits in well with last year's nominees.

Since Selke nominees and winners are, in most every case, centers, faceoff win percentage is very important. Winning draws and getting puck possession for your team, especially on draws in your own end and on the penalty-kill, is monumental in playing a solid defensive game.

Unfortunately, Backstrom is a little bit behind the rest of the crowd in this aspect. He's certainly not bad as he stays above a 50 percent efficiency for faceoffs. But he doesn't excel in the circle like last year's Selke nominees did.

The Capitals' pivot finished the season with a 52.5 percent success rate, Kesler posted a 57.4 percent, Toews was good for a 56.7 percent and Dastyuk a 54.6 percent.

Okay, so Backstrom isn't an expert in the faceoff circle but he is good and tends to step up his efficiency during short-handed situations. While shorthanded, Backstrom's faceoff win percentage was 56.4 which is much closer to the numbers than the three Selke nominees posted.

Only Toews had a better short-handed faceoff-win percentage than Backstrom with a 56.9 percent. Datsyuk had a 56.1 percent and Kesler had a 53.8 percent.

Backstrom wins the important draws. He stands out there. He's no Manny Malhotra but he does stand out.

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 08: Nicklas Backstrom #19 of the Washington Capitals checks Bryan McCabe #24 of the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on January 8, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Hitting is an aspect of the defensive game that we'll look at briefly but it does not necessarily denote defensive skill. It's a good defensive attribute but none of the Selke nominees or Backstrom were in the top-50 in hitting.

Kesler put up the best numbers with 124 hits while Backstrom and Toews performed decently enough with 69 and 74 respectively and Datsyuk had an adequate 54.

Kesler is the most physical of these players but all four of these guys are good along the boards and can either hit, finesse the puck out of a scrum or protect the puck well depending on the situation.

What is valuable about Backstrom's hitting ability is that he doesn't lay big hits but lays effective hits. He's not a guy who's going to rouse the crowd with a bone-crushing hit.  He uses his body well in knocking guys off the pucks or pinning them to the boards and taking them out of the play while a teammate retrieves the puck.

It's a great card that Backstrom brings to the table.

What really made Kesler stand out as the winner in 2011 was probably the fact that, while putting up such great defensive statistics, he also posted 41 goals and 73 points. Toews and Datsyuk were also valuable offensively with 32 goals and 76 points and 23 goals and 59 points respectively. Backstrom had bad year offensively and only potted 18 goals and put up 65 points.

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That's not to say Backstrom was bad offensively but for his standards he did have an off-year and is capable of much more.

Offensive slump aside, Backstrom deserved to have much more consideration for the Selke than he did.

He performed just about as well as Kesler and Toews in most areas and was significantly better than Datsyuk in all areas (except for even-strength faceoff win percentage). Backstrom deserved a nomination.

Look for him to be on the radar this upcoming season. Backstrom is truly underrated when it comes to his defensive prowess and sooner or later he will start to show the Hockey Writer's Association just how good and valuable he is in his own end. 

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