Before we go start, let’s just go ahead and get something out of the way: Patrice Bergeron is probably going to win the 2017-18 Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward based on his current statistics for overall ice performance with the Bruins.
Trying to gauge a league-wide consensus when it comes to the award races is never an easy task, but the general attitude regarding the Selke Trophy right now is that Bergeron pretty much has this thing in the bag.
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski recently published the results of the mid-season awards ballot from the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which displayed Bergeron at the top of the Selke list. In an accompanying article laying out his own personal award nominees, Wyshynski did a perfect job explaining why Bergeron is the front-runner to take home the award for the second straight year and fifth time overall:
“Of course, sometimes reputation and achievement just happen to coincide.
Bergeron has won the Selke four times, and another win would break his tie with Bob Gainey for most all time. Last season’s winner is fourth in the NHL with a 56.8 faceoff winning percentage (minimum 900 faceoffs), but that jumps to an NHL-best 59.8 percent when he’s killing penalties for the Bruins, averaging 1:55 in time on ice per game shorthanded. As usual, he leads the Bruins in possession (58.32 in Corsi for percentage), and Boston goalies have a .952 save percentage when he’s on the ice.”
Bergeron genuinely, truly is one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. Considering that he’s won the award numerous times before, is a well-known player (thanks in large part to winning one Stanley Cup and two Olympic goal medals) and plays in a big market, it will surprise exactly no one if he gets recognized again as the league’s best in this regard.
Sure. That’s fine.
But there is always still more to be said about award races, even if the ultimate winner is heavily favored well in advance. Getting mentioned regularly in the conversation and finishing as a finalist for an award are still big deals for players. Beyond just gains in reputation and bragging rights, award recognition can help a player in contract negotiations, and sometimes even sponsorship opportunities.
Which brings me back to Wyshynski and his Selke discussion.
Beyond Bergeron, Wyshynski outlines his two personal favorite runners-up (Sean Couturier and Anze Kopitar), as well as a handful of other honorable mentions (Aleksander Barkov, Mikael Backlund, Jonathan Toews and Ryan O’Reilly).
However, there is one notable omission from that list, another player that is also fully deserving of being in this conversation: Radek Faksa.
The 24-year-old Stars center doesn’t have the same reputation or star power as the aforementioned players, but dig into the numbers of his 2017-18 season and it becomes clear that his defensive play has been nothing sort of exceptional.
First and foremost, Faksa is deployed by Ken Hitchcock and his staff as a true shutdown forward. According to the analytics website Corsica, the 6’3” Czech pivot only starts 19% of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone (the lowest among all Stars forwards), while starting 37% of them in the defensive zone. In terms of various Quality of Competition metrics, Faksa also ranks near the top of the Stars.
He also leads all Stars forwards in time spent shorthanded, with an average of 1:54 per game - far more than the next forward, Tyler Pitlick, at 1:38 per game.
The truly amazing thing about Faksa, however, is just how incredibly successful he is in spite of his difficult deployment.
Faksa is currently sporting a Corsi For percentage of 52.6, which is a remarkably high number considering how rarely he starts his shifts in the offensive zone. Driving possession that effectively and consistently from the defensive zone is not an easy feat.
Here, however, is the single most impressive statistic, which showcases just how good Faksa is defensively: his GA/60 (Goals Against per 60 minutes) is sitting at a 1.41, which is tied for 7th among all NHL forwards who have played 500 or more minutes.
For the sake of comparison, Bergeron allows a staggeringly low 1.2 GA/60 when he’s on the ice at even strength. The big different between Bergeron and Faksa, however, is that Bergeron only starts 32% of his shifts in the defensive zone (compared to Faksa’s 37%), and gets to start 41% of them in the offensive zone (compared to Faksa’s 19%).
In other words, Faksa prevents goals at a level one step below Bergeron, but does so despite significantly more difficult zone starts. That’s pretty darn impressive.
Further demonstrating how good Faksa is defensively, when it comes to suppressing Corsi events, he sits 26th among all NHL forwards with 500 minutes played at even strength for CA/60 (Corsi Against per 60 minutes). But again, Faksa has to do this work while starting often from his own zone and rarely in the offensive zone, which is a significantly tougher deployment than other players have near the top of the Selke list. It’s always easier to prevent offense when a player can start at the opposite end of the rink from their own net.
To summarize what all of these numbers mean: Despite constantly starting shifts in his own zone against tough competition, Faksa is astonishingly good at stopping the other team from producing shots and scoring goals. Opposing teams simply don’t generate offense when they have to go through Faksa’s line to make it happen.
Faksa shouldn’t take all of the credit here, of course. Regular linemates Antoine Roussel and Tyler Pitlick have also been great this season. But Faksa, as the center, has to do the heaviest defensive lifting of the trio.
(It’s also worth noting here, again for comparison sake, that Bergeron usually plays with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. With all due respect to Roussel and Pitlick, Bergeron gets to play with statistically better linemates than Faksa, which goes a long way towards helping his individual numbers).
While other defensive forwards in the league will likely keep getting all the glory this season, it cannot be understated just how well Faksa stacks up as one of the NHL’s elite in this area. In terms of recognition, Faksa deserves so, so much more.