For Canucks' center Ryan Kesler, 2010-11 has been a breakout season (both offensively and shirtwise). In fact, Kesler's been such an offensive sparkplug for the 1st-place Canucks that he's even earned a place in the conversation for the Hart trophy. But, even if Kesler doesn't go home with the Hart, the Selke trophy finally appears his to lose, after two consecutive years of doing exactly that. Twice nominated, he has not yet been able to overcome takeaway machine Pavel Datsyuk, who has been named the league's best defensive forward two years in a row. This year, however, largely due to his offensive breakout, Ryan Kesler is the frontrunner.
Why, exactly? Kesler's offense may have improved, but he's been able to make this progression because his defensive responsibilities have diminished. Earlier this season, Skeeter argued that Kesler's increased offensive role has only been made possible by free agent signing Manny Malhotra, who has taken up much of Kesler's defensive burden. Skeeter:
In 2008-09, Kesler led the team in Corsi Rel QoC, with a rating of 1.265 [...] This was good for 13th in the NHL; night in and night out, Kesler faced the best players the opposition had to offer and earned his first Selke nomination [...] This year, however, Malhotra is taking the heat off Kesler, as Malhotra is third in Corsi Rel QoC on the Canucks, first among forwards. Meanwhile, Kesler is facing the 8th toughest competition [...] With Malhotra bearing the brunt of the opposition's offensive pressure, Kesler has gone from first amongst Canucks forwards in Corsi Rel QoC to sixth.
In short, Manny Malhotra has relieved Ryan Kesler of the dirty, defensive responsibilities and, in so doing, he's freed Kesler up to achieve the type of offensive production necessary to finally win the trophy for the best defensive forward. That's kind of stupid, don't you think?
Yup. It's also indicative of a larger issue. Considering its tacit criteria, the Selke is kind of a stupid award.
The Malhotra/Kesler conversation has underscored one of the main problems facing the Selke: it places a bizarre premium on scoring, (as well as stats in general). Isn't the whole point of the award to celebrate the league's best defensive forward? Who cares how often he scores? The Selke award suffers from a problematic statistical bias. Malhotra's offensive numbers are certainly nowhere near Kesler's, and while he is beginning to gain some Selke traction, the big totals of past winners are working against him. Since the lockout, the award has been handed out five times (twice to Rod Brind Amour and thrice to Datsyuk) and the winner has never had fewer than 70 points. Heck, people thought Kesler might win it last year, mainly because he outscored Datsyuk with 75 points. It shouldn't really have mattered, and thankfully, it didn't.
Another problem is that the Selke is a reputation award. Kesler is coasting on past Selke talk this year, and that's not even remotely unusual--it's how the award works. But, for a trophy handed out annually, the only thing that should matter is how the player performed defensively that season. Instead, the Selke consideration period seems to span multiple years. This too will likely work against Malhotra, who is only in his first season of Selke talk. Unlike Kesler, for whom the pairing of his name and the word Selke is practically Pavlovian, people simply don't think of Malhotra in that way quite yet.
A third problem is that nobody sees all the teams regularly enough to properly determine who the best defensive forwards actually are. Dave Lozo believes both Malhotra and Kesler should be nominated, but what about Jannik Hansen, for example? As a Canucks fan, I could say that Jannik Hansen deserves some Selke talk, but who outside of Vancouver is even going to notice the little things he does night-in and night-out? Nobody. Heck, the fact that he's not a center practically disqualifies him from consideration. However, if one was to ask the players in the Canucks' dressing room to name their best defensive forward, and I assure you Hansen would get a few votes. You really have to watch closely to see all the little things he does on the defensive end: his checking (back, fore, body, and poke) is downright sublime, and his puck pressure and board work is stellar. But that's the rub with good defensive play; it doesn't stand out. How can the Selke celebrate the best defensive forward when good defensive play goes relatively unnoticed in limited doses? It can't.
So how do we combat the issues of statistical bias, reputation, and limited observation? My solution would be to treat the Selke like the Masterton trophy, and let the nominations come from the teams for which the players play. Let each team nominate a forward and let the league pare it down from there. Not only would this allow many more players to be rewarded for their defensive play, it would allow the nominations to come from the people most qualified to recognize their subtle contributions.
Bonus tangent: is there's an award for best defensive forward, why isn't there one for best offensive defenseman? The Dustin Byfuglien/Tobias Enstrom conversation from earlier this year had similar underlying issues.