With the NHL season at around the half-way mark, we are going to look at which players in the NHL deserve which award so far. We will be breaking down the midseason 2020-21 NHL awards. 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. For each award, we will be giving our top three picks as well as two honourable mentions. These honourable mentions are not just players that are next on the list (though they could be), just players that are deserving of recognition.
Midseason 2020-21 NHL Awards By the Numbers
Winner: Valeri Nichushkin
Valeri Nichushkin became the king of advanced stats last season. Despite low-scoring totals, he dominated in most expected-goals models, was an RAPM-beast, and made acquiring Corsi look like a Sunday walk. And he’s doing it again this year… except, he might be doing it even better.
Nichushkin is simply dominating play for the Colorado Avalanche. Among NHL forwards with at least 300 minutes of ice time, at even-strength, Nichushkin ranks high in every defensive-category. To list a few, Nichushkin ranks… second in CF%, first in CA/60, seventh in xGA/60, and eighth in SA/60.
That’s all to say that Nichushkin is absolutely elite at keeping his opponents from getting shots off, shown by his CA/60 and CF%. In fact, only seven other forwards in the league see fewer shots from their opponents while they’re on the ice (SA/60). And when the other team does get shots off against, they’re often extremely low-quality, shown by his dominant xGA/60.
Nichushkin’s even-strength defensive impact (shown by his EV Defence WAR) also ranks higher than any other forward in the NHL this year in Patrick Bacon’s WAR model.
The Nightly Opposition
It’s worth noting that Nichushkin plays against a fairly modest Quality of Competition. He faces mostly middle-six talent while playing on Colorado’s third line. But that fact doesn’t take away from his dominance at all. It goes without saying that Nichushkin’s defence is the best on the Avalanche. Again using shot-quality as an indicator, with RAPM isolates to help individualize the stats, Nichushkin has a -0.16 RAPM xGA/60 in Patrick Bacon’s model. No other player in the Avalanche’s bottom-six comes even close to Nichushkin’s impact. The next-best bottom-six player, Tyson Jost, has a -0.07 RAPM xGA/60. That’s not even half as good as Nichushkin’s tally. What’s more, the third-place bottom-six name, Joonas Donskoi, has a 0.03 RAPM xGA/60. That’s to say the Avalanche are actually worse, in terms of xGA/60, with Donskoi on the ice.
Nichushkin is the glue that holds the Avalanche’s bottom-six together. His impact is incredible; at a level higher than anyone else in the league. The Avalanche have the second-best team-xGA/60 in the league and that is almost entirely thanks to Nichushkin’s dominance in his modest, third-line role.
The Selke Trophy awards the forward that best impacts his team on the defensive side of things. That, undeniably, goes to Valeri Nichushkin. His dominance demands some hardware come the 2020-21 NHL Awards.
Runner-Up: Jeff Skinner
Jeff Skinner is definitely not a name that’s associated with dominant defence. In fact, he hasn’t been associated with very many positives at all this season. Former, and recently fired, Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger had a grudge against Skinner and slotted the winger on the team’s fourth line this season.
But the fourth-line slot didn’t affect who Skinner matched up against. In fact, Evolving Hockey’s Quality of Competition model argues that only 15 forwards in the entire NHL have faced a harder challenge than Skinner has this year (three also being Sabres).
Jeff Skinner has been placed in an impossible situation this season. And while his goal-scoring hasn’t taken off, his defense has been terrific. Skinner has the best RAPM xGA/60 of any NHL forward in Evolving Hockey’s model and ranks second in that stat in Patrick Bacon’s model. What’s more, Jeff Skinner’s xEVD/60 ranks second in the league and his xDef/60 ranks fifth. He’s also been strong in his penalty-drawing versus penalty-taking, ranking in the 84th percentile of the league with his xPenalty/60.
Skinner’s inclusion on this list comes from the simple fact that his role has been incredibly difficult to handle. And despite it, he has been among the best in the league defensively. Among everyone listed in this article, Skinner has faced the hardest role. His role has had the largest negative-impact on his defensive output. And despite it, he’s dominated.
Skinner is a goal-scorer by trade. But this year, he’s secretly become a Selke-level forward.
Third Place: Joel Eriksson Ek
Joel Eriksson Ek is another name that’s become synonymous with advanced stats. Like Nichushkin, Eriksson Ek earned his advanced stat-fame from dominant play in a modest role for his team. He was an underappreciated name who did incredibly well with the time he was given. But unlike Nichushkin, Eriksson Ek’s dominance has finally been noticed. He’s played the second-most of any Minnesota Wild forward this year, against harder competition than anyone on the team (well, tied with Jordan Greenway).
And despite the drastic boost in responsibility, Eriksson Ek has been… uh, good. Very, very good. He has the fourth-best RAPM xG(+/-)/60 in Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model. Patrick Bacon’s model ranks him even higher, placing him firmly at second in the NHL in the category. He’s been absolutely incredible at shutting down opposition and turning play up the ice to create dominant scoring chances.
Eriksson Ek ranks sixth in xEVD/60, or even-strength defence GAR per-60, in Evolving Hockey’s model. His rank drops one when including his shorthanded impact, which seems to make sense considering the Minnesota Wild have had a regular carousel of penalty killers throughout the 2020-21 season, with 17 forwards receiving time on the PK.
The Wild have been blessed with Marcus Foligno as well, who ranks similar to Eriksson Ek in most defensive categories, in an ever-so-slightly easier role. So through the fortune of some strong teammates, Eriksson Ek’s defensive responsibility is slightly less than those above him. But he’s still absolutely dominated and is worth a mention in any 2020-21 NHL Awards discussion. He rivals a Selke nomination this season and will surely be winning one at some time over the course of his career.
Calle Jarnkrok’s case for the Selke is fairly straightforward. He ranks top in Evolving Hockey’s xDef/60 statistic, fourth in their xEVD/60, and second in their RAPM xGA/60 at even strength. Patrick Bacon’s model is similarly obsessed with Jarnkrok. He holds the top-spot in Bacon’s RAPM xGA/60 at even strength.
Jarnkrok’s dominance has been fairly limited to just limiting shot-quality in the defensive zone; just racking up a strong xGA/60. His Corsi stats have been good but aren’t leading any categories. He’s also been confined to a bottom-six role, keeping his responsibility fairly modest. Still, in terms of defensive-zone play, it’s hard to argue any forward has been better than Jarnkrok. And that defensive-zone impact is absolutely crucial for a Nashville Predators team that’s a modest 10th in the league in xGA/60. They depend on Jarnkrok, even if his responsibility remains modest.
Joe Pavelski has ranked in the top-25 in Selke voting eight times in his career. But this year, he might end up pushing for a win. His xGA/60 and CA/60 have been absolutely tremendous. Patrick Bacon’s RAPM xGA/60 model ranks him second in the league. Evolving Hockey ranks him 14th in terms of xEVD/60. His RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey speaks to that point clearly enough:
His impact has been unexpected but incredibly strong. Even after RAPM isolates, Pavelski’s defence shines like gold. Dallas has been the best team in the league in terms of xGA/60 and Pavelski has been the man leading the defensive-charge. He’s nearing the end of his career and it’s about time that Joe Pavelski took home the Selke after the 2020-21 NHL Awards.