With the season on hold for the time being, there’s no telling what would have happened with the 2019-20 NHL Awards. Sure certain players had leads but the race for most awards were tighter than what showed on the surface. This is especially true when looking at the underlying stats, which bring up some exciting cases. In this series, the Last Word on Hockey team will decide who should have won each award based on the advanced numbers. Today, we’ll look at the Selke Trophy.
All stats used come from Evolving Hockey, looking at forwards with at least 750 minutes of ice time this season.
Deciding the 2019-20 NHL Awards: Selke Trophy
Winner: Valeri Nichushkin
This is one of the easiest awards to dish out. Advanced stats are usually a great tool to spell out a host of different theories. But this season, they all pointed in one direction: Valeri Nichushkin may be the most underrated player in recent memory. He was absolutely incredible judging by the underlying numbers, something many wouldn’t guess given his low scoring totals: 27 points in 65 games. In fact, these low totals were a big factor in Nichushkin being bought out by the Dallas Stars last summer.
The Colorado Avalanche signed the winger and he paid off in dividends. Not only did he have an xGF/60 higher than players like Alex Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin, and David Pastrnak; he also had a league-best xGA/60, SA/60, GA/60, and ranked 10th in CA/60. In every stat that showcases a forward’s defensive ability, Nichushkin either ranked at the top or close to it. All signs pointed to Nichushkin being, by far, the best defensive forward in the entire NHL, even better than 2019 Selke winner Ryan O’Reilly.
Below is a comparison of Nichushkin and O’Reilly’s even-strength RAPM charts. These graphs chart GF/60, xGF/60, CF/60, xGA/60, and CA/60 in relation to their z-score. The higher the z-score, or more-blue a bar, the better the player is in that stat, with the axis marking league average.
The simple fact that Nichushkin’s graph is so closely similar to O’Reilly’s is a true testament to his rebound with Colorado. But his significantly higher xGA/60 tally is ample proof: he was a better defensive-forward than the best defensive-forward, O’Reilly, this season. In fact, nobody’s chart comes anywhere near Nichushkin’s. He was simply phenomenal, setting a xGA/60 that broke the RAPM graph, setting him at a level better than most defencemen even. There is no debating his worth for this title.
Runner-Up: Johan Larsson
Coming in second is another extremely undervalued name, one that may have been heavily overlooked because he plays on the atrocious Buffalo Sabres. Johan Larsson has spent his entire career stuck in Buffalo’s bottom-six, despite glimpses of a great play. This was never more true than it was this year. Like Nichushkin, Larsson’s talents were hidden away, out of range of merely his point totals. Digging deeper, though, shows that Larsson’s worth as a defence-first forward is incredibly valuable. Through just under 15 minutes of ice time on average, the 27-year-old ranked third in xGA/60, sixth in CA/60, third in xGA/60 relative to his teammates, and within the top-25 in GA/60.
These are great tallies that are only heightened by the fact that Larsson did this while playing in Buffalo’s bottom-four, arguably one of the worst in the league. Here is how Larsson’s RAPM chart compares to Nichushkin:
This graph again serves to place Larsson in the upper-echelon of defensive forwards, also with a higher xGA/60 than O’Reilly. It’s simply a great visual to back up the fact that Larsson was one of the best defensive forwards in the league, well-deserving of a third-place ranking in Selke voting and, at the very least, more ice time in Buffalo.
Third Place: Zach Aston-Reese
The only player to shape up to Nichushkin’s amazing defensive stats is Zach Aston-Reese, who actually tallied a just-better xGA/60 than Nichushkin, although his 687 minutes of ice time fell just short of the filters used. Still, Aston-Reese also ranked seventh in CA/60 and second in SA/60, just behind Nichushkin. All signs point towards Aston-Reese being among one of the best defensive forwards in the league. Unfortunately, his season was cut short in February when he was placed on injured reserve, cutting down his chance to truly hold a torch to Nichushkin or even Larsson, who bumps his way up the ladder simply because of his amazing impact on such a poor team. Here is how Aston-Reese’s RAPM chart ranks against Nichushkin’s:
This graph visually confirms that Aston-Reese was one of the only players in the NHL to hold a torch to the incredible defensive season of Nichushkin. If Aston-Reese can find a way to stay healthy – for once – and continue this play, he could very well earn his own title as Selke winner, at least according to the numbers.
In what was a very experimental season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brandon Tanev took a very large step towards defensive reliability. He ranked fourth in xGA/60 and 11th in CA/60.
In a never-ending effort to prove his worth with the Boston Bruins, Charlie Coyle emerged as an elite defensive forward this season. He ranked fifth in xGA/60, 14th in SA/60, and 27th in CA/60. This is in combination with his elite play on the penalty kill.