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Despite changes in assessing defensive abilities, Selke Award still recognizes mastery

What makes a good defensive forward? The criteria seems to change, but it doesn't making winning the Selke Award any easier.

With the NHL having unveiled its latest award winners, it’s interesting to think about the hierarchy of trophies. Some trophies, like the Lady Byng for gentlemanly play and the Calder for rookie of the year, mean absolutely nothing in assessing a career at the end of it. Others, like the Hart trophy for MVP and the Vezina for best goalie, will raise your legacy to Hall of Fame levels.

And then there is the Selke trophy, handed out, in theory, to the forward who plays the best defensively, which sounds like an oxymoron, like awarding the best passing goalie, defying the most basic notions of hockey that extend back to the pond: if you’re lining up near that center dot when the game starts, scoring best be your primary thing.

The Selke is a weird award, and who gets to win it—which is to say, the criteria—has shifted a lot over the years, such that these days you basically need to be a center with a decent offensive game who wins a lot of face-offs and has a solid year-in, year-out rep. In that regard it can be a legacy award.

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The finalists this year were Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Kesler and Mikko Koivu, with Bergeron winning his record-tying fourth trophy when he shouldn’t have even been there after having had a down year.

It’s a bit like Ozzie Smith winning Gold Gloves when he shouldn’t have been collecting goodies from the mine anymore. The Selke can be downright weird: the Bruins’ Steve Kasper, for instance, won the award in 1981-82 when he was a -18. Sitting at home you and I would have been a solid 0. But Kasper had a cool nickname—the Friendly Ghost, of course—and was known for shutting down Wayne Gretzky, never mind that Gretzky had 212 points that season and the Bruins and Oilers only played twice, and though I haven’t checked, I doubt Gretzky didn’t at least average a point a game and we’re talking 1/40th of the schedule.

The Selke won’t normally get you in the Hall of Fame. Bob Gainey, the man Bergeron tied, had a monopoly on the early days of the award and he’s in. His Selke hardware helped overrate his prowess such that you might have thought, reading the hockey trades, he was inverted Gretzky, in essence, a wizard of his own end who doubled as some magical puck purloiner who manifested out of nothingness and eat up all of your time and space like Pacman munching down pellets.

Sergei Fedorov is the only Hart trophy winner to be awarded the Selke in the same season (1994), while Doug Gilmour is another Hall of Famer to have won the award. But yeah, not a lot of Selke guys are Hall of Fame guys. It’s sort of like being a defensive maestro of a shortstop, Mark Belanger rather than Cal Ripken.

What’s useful about the Selke, even as it becomes bastardized, is that it allows us to think about what makes a strong defensive forward. I say bastardized because we are so into measurables now in a mentally lazy society where we would rather focus on what a printout of numbers tells us—or misleads us into thinking—than have to go through the steps of observation and cognition, conclusion, reassessment, reconclusion, all on that Zamboni-cleared path to enlightenment, in this case. Hence the obsession with face-offs and who’s winning them, which means wingers aren’t going to be part of the Selke conversation.

The last time a winger won was Jere Lehtinen back in 2003, so if you’re not turning your bottom hand over after each whistle stoppage when a new play begins, you’re not going to be in this winner’s circle. But this makes a certain amount of sense. As a winger, your defensive responsibility is the other team’s defenseman, though you’re not pressed up close against him. You hover, essentially, manning the boards and the attacking players who venture there and of course you do your bit on the back-check. In the grand scheme of life, all backcheckers are created equal; everybody digs when flying after a puck carrier who advances upon the offensive zone.

This feeds into the belief that being a good defensive forward is simply a matter of desire. If you make the decision to try hard, you’ll be great at this. Which would be an outright fallacy. Because now we are talking centers, and this is where skill and even a kind of brilliance, come to the fore.

One of the hardest things to do in sport is to be a great defensive center. It’s not exactly up there with hitting the curve after a pitcher just dropped a few 100 mph fastballs on you, but it’s pretty damn underrated and pretty damn hard.

The center needs to anticipate plays, fully commit in one direction without over-committing by leaving a given portion of ice—so he must possess what I think of as ice-based prescience—and nimbly occupy lines fully, so in effect be like a fleet-footed Michelin Man who morphs into a sort of Silver Surfer type of dude around the apron of the net, flowing from the slot to the corners to directly behind the goalie.

You are responsible for the slot, along with the defenseman who is there, while his partner is off in the corner battling a forward. Should that forward be joined by another, with your teammate losing the puck battle, or struggling with it, you must decide where you would better off be: helping along in said battle, or maintaining that presence in the slot where perhaps some sniper is whirling about, looking for space for when a very one-timetable pass comes his way.

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If you go to the corner, it must be as if if you’ve left a portion of your self behind, something that will cut off that pass, now that you’re no longer there. This can be the angle you take cornerwards, it can be waiting until the corner scrum shifts behind the net such that the pass can no longer be made. We’re talking high levels of anticipation, in high leverage circumstances.

When the puck is re-won, down low, there is then the challenge of clearing the zone, which means immediately turning defense into a brand of offense less predicated on scoring and more based on escaping. It’s almost like you’re swimming and the sharks are still in the water, but if you get to the beach swiftly and safely enough, you can just run and run and run to that cute date you brought with you that day. That date, in the hockey sense, being the other team’s net, where their center will do a version of what you just did.

What people tend to fail to consider, too, is that defense happens everywhere. Defense happens in the offensive zone, where the center is always mindful of the counterattack, of getting too deep, of being the third forward down low. Centers must be masters of geometry, the highest point of the triangle, who move from side to side, when the entire shape does, in their opponent’s end, and then the lowest point of the triangle in their own end, swimming in that deadly sea that is the portion of the ice from the lower slot to the two corners. In other words, the goal-making zone.

Winning a lot of face-offs means you might have to do a little less of this, but hockey, as with life, always comes down to what happens down low. And good decisions. And knowing when trouble is swiftly afoot. And when to help your buddy. And when to let your buddy help himself, as you busy yourself with something else that is going to help out everyone in the long run. Even if you don’t maybe get as much credit for it as you’d like, or perhaps more than you should.