Who Is the NHL's Best Defensive Forward ?

Scott WeldonCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2010

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MARCH 13: Ryan Kesler #17 of the Vancouver Canucks stands at centre ice with his silver medal from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games during a pre-game ceremony prior to a NHL game against the Ottawa Senators on March 13, 2010 at General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Rich Lam/Getty Images

The Frank J Selke trophy was instituted to reward Bob Gainey for the unsung role he played on the 1970s Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winning teams. The trophy is awarded annually to the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive portion of the game. Gainey who won the award the first four years it was given out, was a speedy checker who was key in shutting down the opposition’s leading scorer.

The defensive/checking forward is the one who kills penalties and who rolls out there against the opponent’s top talent. It's unfortunately one of those awards that is difficult to quantify. When Gainey won it, the NHL hadn't even begun to keep plus/minus numbers.

Gainey was a fast, tough checker. He killed penalties and was famed for his ability to shut down offensively skilled players. After playing against the Soviet Red Army team on New Year's Eve in 1975 coach Viktor Tikonov called Bob Gainey the best player in the world. It wasn't because of his scoring ability. 

How good was Gainey in an absolute sense? Was he better or worse defensively at any point in his career. Did he win the last two of his Selke trophies on reputation? There's no way to tell.

Hockey doesn't lend itself to the statistical note taking seen in baseball, and the NHL tended to ignore any attempt to quantify some of the more nebulous aspects of the game. This left sportswriters to pick a best defensive forward based on who they'd seen and what they felt were good defensive players and plays.

Since the 2004 lockout the NHL has been better at collecting and distributing more statistics that help document what goes on, on the ice. Now in a league where the shots on goal counts provided by local team statisticians often seem dubious, it's a lot to ask for real, meaningful counts on takeaways, blocked shots, and hits. Still the numbers are available and provide some sort of context for evaluating defensive play in the NHL. 

The current Frank J Selke trophy holder is Pavel Datsyuk. He's a talented offensive player who has been given credit for great defensive play and has won the award two years in a row. Why? 

During the 2007/08 season Pavel Datsyuk managed to have an NHL record 144 takeaways. The next highest total in the admittedly short time the statistic has been kept (since 2005/06), have been from Marian Hossa and Evgeny Malkin who have both managed 94 takeaways in a season. The takeaway is a good, useful defensive number. It tends to reflect speed and strength on the puck. One of Bobby Orr’s defensive strengths was the takeaway. He’d catch players from behind with his speed and have the puck off their stick before they knew he was there.  

Datsyuk also gave up the puck 68 times that year for a differential of 76 takeaways.  The next highest recorded differential, was Todd White with Atlanta that year, who was plus 51. Datsyuk’s plus 76 differential is also the best number recorded in the last five years. Throw in the fact that Datsyuk played against top offensive lines and that he was good in the face-off circle, and the case for him as the league's best defensive player is made. 

The best defensive forward award, originally designed for a shadowing winger, has become a center's award. Skill in the face-off circle is an obvious defensive advantage. A team with the puck tends not be scored on. Win the puck in a defensive zone and you are making an important defensive play. Face-off percentage was also a statistic the NHL has kept ad infinitum, so it was available for sports writers to use in their search for the Selke trophy winner.

This has resulted in only three other wingers besides Gainey; Craig Ramsay, Dirk Graham, and Jere Lehtinen winning the award in the thirty one years it has been given out. Meanwhile a pack of centers, known for their faceoff ability, Bobby Clarke, Doug Jarvis, Dave Poulin, Guy Carbonneau, Michael Peca, and Rod Brind'amour have all won the trophy. Skill in the faceoff circle while a component of great defensive play has perhaps been over-represented just because that number has always been there to use.    

Wingers have gotten short shrift because of this. The NHL’s attempt to collect more esoteric numbers has made it possible to add a few more numbers in the hunt for the best defensive forward.

He has to be a great skater. You can't contain the best players in the league if you can't stay with them. It helps if he's physical, kills penalties well, blocks shots, and is responsible at every end of the ice. It's good if the player can win a face off but I'd like to see that criteria get diluted a bit by the other factors, so if Bob Gainey was reincarnated he could still win the Selke trophy in this NHL.  

The first factor looked at among the better defensive forwards this year was the takeaway statistic. This number seems to be the one Datsyuk has been riding to victory as the league's best defensive player. It's an indication of a player's ability to get the puck away from an opponent who has possession. It is obviously a great bonus defensively. 

Datsyuk is again leading the league with 106 takeaways. He's followed by Kesler 71, Okposo 68, Alfredsson 64, Langkow 62, Jamie Benn and Joe Thornton 61. A good defensive player though isn't only getting the puck, he's also keeping it safe. Datsyuk's 64 giveaways are fourth worst in the league.

The important number is who has the best differential of takeaways to giveaways. This year that's Ryan Kesler who has taken away 50 more pucks then he's given away. Jonathon Toews is second with 45. Alex Burrows and Pavel Datsyuk are next at 42. Chris Drury is plus 38. Ryan Callahan is plus 37. Marty Reasoner with Atlanta has 36 extra takeaways. 

Last year interestingly enough (though I may be using that term loosely) Pavel Datsyuk was second in total takeaways with eighty nine. His takeaway to giveaway differential was 39, eighth best in the league. The leader was Marty Reasoner with 51 extra takeaways. He was followed by Loui Ericksson, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Callahan, James Neal, and Joel Ward all players who show up on the league's best defensive player list this year.   

Ability in the faceoff circle can't be ignored. It's a valuable defensive skill. The players who took more then 300 face-offs were listed and these are the best.

Scott Nichol is the current faceoff leader in the league winning 61.5 percent of his 754 face-offs. He's followed by erstwhile goon Zenon Konopka of Tampa Bay, Manny Malhotra, Dave Steckel, and Joe Pavelski, all above 60 percent. Pavel Datsyuk ranked 13th among the forwards classified as defensive forwards. Patrice Bergeron was ninth on this list, Jonathon Toews 10th, Ryan Kesler 14th, and Chris Drury 20th.  

The next statistic tabulated was blocked shots. The numbers for forwards tend to be much lower than for defenseman just by the nature of the position they play. The forwards who block shots are deadly serious about the defensive roll they play. Some of the more talented offensive players who play a good responsible defensive game, cannot be expected to put their valuable limbs in front of shots. Pavel Datsyuk or Jonathon Toews won't make anyone’s top 50 shot-blocker list, nor should they. This is an aspect of defensive play that needs to be considered when trying to find the league's best defensive forward. 

The league forward who blocks the most shots? It was Chris Drury with 86. Nate Thompson of the Tampa Bay Lightning was second with 77. Then it's Ryan Callahan, Greg Campbell, Ryan Johnson, Mike Fisher, Ryan Kesler, Ian Laperriere, Todd Marchant, and Joel Ward.

Of the 60 forwards examined, Datsyuk was an unsurprising 49th with 25 blocks. Toews was 47th with 27. The player who surprised me the most was Chris Neil who was the worst of this group with a mere eight blocked shots. He was quite happy to hit people and he made the top ten with 205 hits, but apparently he's not willing to be hit by a puck. Probably this is more a consequence of ice time then anything else, but it was a shockingly low number.  

The next factor considered was hitting. How many hits do these defensive forwards deliver? A lot of hits indicate a willingness and ability to punish an opponent. A player needs to be able to skate to lay on the body a lot. The top 10 hitters were Cal Clutterbuck at 266 followed closely by Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown, Steve Ott, David Backes, Ken Morrow, the aforementioned Chris Neil, Scott Nichol, Mike Fisher, and Dustin Byfuglien. Darren Helm clocked in at 13th overall, Greg Campbell fourth in blocked shots was 14th in hits. Travis Moen was 15th, followed by Ian Laparriere and TJ Oshie.                          

Last looked at was the amount of penalty killing time players were given by their own teams. This is a pretty good indication of the faith a team has in a player’s defensive ability. Players like Toews, Crosby, and Datsyuk are too valuable offensively to be the primary penalty killers on their team but they were put on the penalty kill enough to show the faith their team had in them. 

Some players like Konopka, Byfuglien, Benn, and Neil only made it on to the penalty kill by accident. Their teams had no faith in them and they're probably just too slow to be great defensive players.    


Okay that's a lot of information to sift through and still it ends with a final list that the average hockey fan could have probably put together with a little thought. Generally speaking these are players who are good at more then one aspect of defensive hockey and who their teams liked to give primary defensive roles to.  

Second Tier:  These guys are good defensive forwards who excel at more then one aspect of the defensive game but aren’t currently the best defensive forwards in the game.

Richard Park C: New York Islanders. Richard has the ninth most takeaways in the league so far and the 15th best differential at plus 29. He was good in the face-off circle winning 51.6 percent of the time and he had the 20th most face-off wins among all the checking forwards. Park had the eleventh most blocked shots in the league. Park is his team’s primary penalty killer. 

Scott Nichol C: San Jose Sharks. The tiny speedy checker is the best face-off man in the league. San Jose has a depth of centers so this translates into winning only the 44th most amount of face-offs in the league(464), but he's great to have for that crucial defensive faceoff. He's tight with the puck giving it up only 13 times so far this year. He's fast enough to stay with most offensive players and he delivered the eighth most hits among the checkers. His tiny stature limits the effect of those hits unfortunately.  

Patrice Bergeron C: Boston Bruins. Patrice is another good face-off man. He had the ninth best winning percentage among the checkers and won seventh most face-offs as the Bruins use him in almost every crucial face-off situation. His takeaway-giveaway differential was plus 30 good enough for 12th.

Contenders: These guys are close and have won, or could win a Selke trophy.

Pavel Datsyuk C: Detroit Red Wings. Pavel has won the last two Selke trophies. He probably deserved to be dethroned last year and will be this year. Still he's quick and great with the puck. He's again leading the league in takeaways and his differential is third best in the league. He's strong in the faceoff circle with the 13th highest winning percentage and the 18th most face-off wins. He gets adequate penalty kill time and plays against the opponents' stars, showing his team's faith in his defensive abilities. He's made a credible 73 hits so far this year, but he's certainly not out there to block shots. 

Jonathan Toews C: Chicago Blackhawks. Here's another quality offensive player who can play a top end defensive game. He starred for Canada at the Olympics in what was basically a checking role. He's fifth in total takeaways and his mere 15 giveaways leave him second overall with a plus 45 differential. He was 10th best in the face-off circle and had the sixth most wins in the face-off. To see him as the league's best defensive forward I need to see him with more then 48 hits and 27 blocked shots. He's too valuable a player to be running around hitting people and blocking shots. He's not as fast as some of these other checkers either. 

Ryan Callahan RW: New York Rangers. Callahan was my one hope for a Bob Gainey type Selke winner. He's not as fast as Gainey was, but watching him fore checking in the Olympics I came to realize he's faster then I thought. Callahan delivers a big blow when he hits and he hits a lot, second most of all the forwards in the league. He was also the third leading shot blocker among the defensive forwards in the league. He had the 14th most takeaways in the league and the sixth best differential. He along with Chris Drury is the primary penalty killer on the Rangers and plays the 11th most short handed minutes among forwards in the league. He's a great defensive forward. He just might not be the best defensive forward on his own team. 

Chris Drury C: New York Rangers. Drury is the leading shot blocker among forwards in the league. He's got two more takeaways then Callahan and his differential is one better. His 62 hits don't compare to Callahan's 264, but in the end I have to believe Drury’s ability in the face-off circle makes him a slightly better defensive forward then Callahan. Callahan ends up in the circle by accident having taken thirty-one face-offs this year. Drury has taken over 1,000 and he's won 53 percent of them. 

Mike Fisher C: Ottawa Senators. Mike has taken on more of an offensive role this year, but he started as a checking center and he still has the skills. His 52.9 percent success rate in the face-off circle has him just behind Drury's 20th best 53 percent. He's won the eighth most face-offs of all the checkers by virtue of the number of face-offs he takes. He's also the ninth leading hitter and sixth leading shot-blocker among the league's checking forwards. He's still logging a lot of penalty kill time in Ottawa. He's had better defensive years, but he still needs to be in the conversation. 

Frank J Selke Trophy Winner: Best defensive forward to date this year

Ryan Kesler C: Vancouver Canucks.   Kesler is another American checker who excelled in that role in the Olympics. He has the second most takeaways to date and the best takeaway-to-giveaway surplus in the league at 50. He's a good face-off man who has the 14th best winning percentage and has won the fifth most face-offs in the league. He has taken 1,245 face-offs so far for Vancouver. Kesler is also his team's leading penalty killer and has blocked the seventh most shots among forwards in the league. His 81 hits separate him from the offensive players who like to check as a hobby. Ryan Kesler is I believe the best defensive forward in the NHL today and deserving of the Frank J Selke trophy at the end of the year.  

Top 5 defensive Forwards

1/Ryan Kesler - Vancouver Canucks

2/Chris Drury- New York Rangers

3/Ryan Callahan- New York Rangers

4/Pavel Datsyuk- Detroit Red Wings

5/Jonathon Toews- Chicago Blackhawks

Anomalies: I eventually collected stats for 60 forwards I deemed to be top-notch defenders. They were top 10 guys in one of the statistical categories I was interested in.  I also threw in guys with reputations as defensive forwards, former Selke trophy winners, and the like. Some interesting players and numbers shook out. 

Tomas Plekanec made my list of defensive forwards. He was fourth in total faceoff wins. He was 15th in blocked shots and he was sixth in the league in short-handed ice time. Yet on his own team Travis Moen is probably the best defensive forward. Closer examination shows that Montreal is leading the league by far in penalties which helps explain the penalty kill time and probably all the shot-blocking. He's also taken the most face-offs of anyone I looked at (1,482) and he's only winning 48.5 percent of them which, to me, makes him a defensive liability. Throw in his minus 11 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio and it's obvious Plekanec can't be considered among the league's best defensive forwards despite the faith Montreal shows in him. Travis Moen with three times the hits, four fewer blocked shots, and only five giveaways is probably a much better defensive forward on his own team. 

Seriously Chris Neil has blocked nine shots!!?! What is he, too important to block a shot?  

Zenon Konopka has made a reputation for himself by leading the league in fighting majors. He made my list with his 92 hits and his 61.1 percent face-off winning percentage on 393 face-offs. he's carved himself out a little niche as a fighter who can win face-offs. His other statistics are pretty spotty probably because of a lack of speed and ice time. Tampa Bay doesn't trust him to kill penalties and he's got 2:34 of short-handed ice time. 

Joe Thornton was sixth best in the league with 61 takeaways. His 79 giveaways disqualified him from best defensive player consideration. 

Daymond Langkow was pretty high in a variety of categories. He had a fifth best 62 takeaways and a credible plus 37 differential. Throw in an 11th best among forwards, 55 blocked shots and a Datsyuk like 78 hits and you have to start wondering why he didn't get more consideration. Unfortunately Langkow has taken 1,105 face-offs and has only won 43.5 percent. That's a bigger defensive liability then a guy who can't take face-offs. 

Some players turned out to have one exceptional defensive ability and then were pretty ordinary at everything else. Dave Steckel from Washington had the fourth best winning percentage in the face-off circle. None of his other numbers, 96 hits, 32 blocked shots, +5 takeaway/giveaway differential cracked the top twenty statistically.

In the end I never incorporated +/- into this defensive evaluation. I believe it’s pretty useless for evaluating defensive ability.  It shows up players who are on good scoring lines and highlights players who are out-scoring their opponents. A prime example would be the difference between Alex Burrows’ and Ryan Kesler’s plus-minus numbers. They’re both defensively responsible players with comparable numbers of hits, blocked shots and giveaway/takeaway numbers. They’re one and two among Vancouver forwards when it comes to time spent killing penalties. Kesler is his team's checking center. Burrows is a defensively responsible forward who’s often playing on one of Vancouver’s top two offensive lines. Kesler is the better defensive player but not by a massive margin.

Kesler has 66 points and a plus/minus of +3, while Burrows has 59 points and is +30.

What does that plus/minus number tell me except that Burrows plays on an offensive line against the other team's checkers. Kesler plays on a checking line against the other team's scorers. It’s not really of any use for evaluating defensive ability.

Who's your favorite defensive forward? Drop me a note and I'll see how he did, or look up the numbers yourself on NHL.com. These statistics can be found under the summary list for players under the tab hits-players. Filter it so you're just looking at forwards.