The Frank J. Selke award is given to the player judged to have demonstrated the most skill in the defensive aspect of the game. Playing defense is not static in hockey like it is in baseball. There are specific aspects of defense that would be specifically placed under the umbrella of defense such as shot suppression and denying zone entries. In hockey, offense is a form of defense. If the other team doesn’t have the puck, they can’t generate scoring chances.
A few fun facts about the Selke:
- Sergei Federov is the only player to have won both the Selke and the Hart trophy in the same season.
- 14 of the past 15 winners have been centers.
- Patrice Bergeron has won the trophy in three of the last four seasons.
Bergeron is one of the best players in the game as he is strong offensively (27th in points/60 since 2010-2011) and is even better defensively. He has the strongest case for best defensive forward year after year and this season looks no different.
But this isn’t about Bergeron; it’s about Joe Thornton, who at 36 is having the best season of his career since 2009-2010 as he went point per game. The hulking center finished 14th in Selke voting last season; the best finish of his career. His resume this year is even better. For Sharks fans, his strong defensive game on top of his elite offensive generation is nothing new. It may come as a surprise to some that he stacks up well to some of the best two way centers of the game.
Take a look how he compares to division rival Anze Kopitar over the past three years in this WARRIOR chart courtesy of Domenic Galamini. Thornton is elite at both ends of the ice. As for specifically this season, Thornton has once again been a dominant force. Take a look at the following charts. I included Thornton with the top four vote getters from 2014 and 2015. I also included Sidney Crosby because his defensive game is above average but I wanted to see how he fared in this group. Stats are taken from April 8th, 2016 courtesy of Corsica Hockey and War on Ice.
Thornton is second to only Sidney Crosby in points/60 and his possession based metrics are among the best in the NHL.
As for his defensive play, he has been a force.
Both charts tell the same story using two different proxies for measuring possession. Joe Thornton has arguably been second to only Bergeron at shot suppression. Anze Kopitar puts up a decent fight. Jonathan Toews, who has finished in Selke voting in the top three four times, has not had a Selke worthy year. Crosby has outplayed Toews on the defensive side of the puck based on these two metrics.
Taking a look at scoring chances prevention, there is none better than Jumbo Joe. He leads in scoring chances against/60 and in preventing high danger scoring chances. Thornton, at 36, continues to be an elite center. He has been one of the top three defensive centers in the game this past year.
The biggest knock on Joe Thornton’s chances to win the award hinges at his Zone Start Ratio. Thornton starts more in the offensive zone than the above group. Starting shifts in the offensive zone makes it easier to retain possession, create scoring chances, and prevent the opponent from taking shots. While this does help Thornton, he is a strong defensive player in his own right as he uses solid positioning and good hockey sense to his advantage. David Backes is an outlier here as he begins his shift many times in the defensive zone. Bergeron’s 44.39 Zone Start Ratio makes his shot suppression ability more impressive.
Expected Goals takes shot quality into account and it is more predictive than Corsi For%. Joe Thornton has the lowest xGA/60 and the second lowest xGA/60 relative to team. Patrice Bergeron once again showcases how strong he is at limiting quality shots. These two players are the best at limiting higher quality shots than the rest of the group.
Joe Thornton has had a great season. He will be getting some much deserved Hart trophy consideration. Based on his work this year, only Patrice Bergeron has been a more superior defensive forward this year than Jumbo Joe. Thornton has outproduced Toews, Crosby, and Backes in defensive metrics and arguably Kopitar as well.
It will be interesting as to whether or not Thornton will get a Selke nomination. Voters will be inclined to go back to the usual names of Toews and Backes who he has clearly been superior to. More interesting, will be whether or not voters punish Bergeron for his team not making the playoffs. If making the playoffs were a requirement for the award, Thornton would get my first place vote. Regardless, Thornton’s defensive game was one of the best and he has a legitimate argument to win the Selke. If Thornton were to win, he would join Rod Brind’Amour and Rick Meagher as the only players to win the Selke at age 36 or older. Thornton has had a terrific year, and like all Sharks fans, he doesn’t want the Selke, he wants the Stanley Cup.
*Stats Used From: Corsica Hockey
*Scoring Chances Stats Used From: War on Ice