"There's no way to quantify the best defensive player. You'd have to break it down to where you watched every shift and watched them closely."
-- Rick Dudley
Certain NHL trophies are fairly easily to track using the wide array of statistics available at NHL.com.
Unfortunately, the Selke Trophy, awarded to the League's best defensive forward, isn’t one of them. There are no definitive stats to track defensive awareness or own-zone reliability.
Without hard data to use, finding Selke candidates can become a difficult proposition. It's beauty in the eye of the beholder; quite often, however, no two beholders have the same criteria for beauty.
"I think too often it is a subjective thing," former Tampa Bay Lightning
GM Jay Feaster told NHL.com.
"There's no way to quantify the best defensive player," added Chicago Blackhawks
Assistant General Manager Rick Dudley. "You'd have to break it down to where you watched every shift and watched them closely."
While it's impossible to do that, anecdotal evidence reveals three candidates who should be able to confidently book plane tickets for Las Vegas for the 2009 NHL Awards on June 18.
Philadelphia captain Mike Richards
is in his fourth NHL season and has evolved into an all-situation player, reliable and dependable for every occasion.
He leads the League with seven shorthanded goals, including an NHL-record third career three-on-five goal. He leads the Flyers with 80 takeaways and a 49.0 faceoff winning percentage, and he averages 21:48 of ice time per game, most among the club's forwards. He leads the team with a plus-24 rating, he's third on the team with 141 hits, and he leads the club's forwards with 86 blocked shots.
"I think he thinks the game so well in both zones," Feaster said. "He understands that his offense and the team's offense generates from being in the right position defensively. You watch them play and he never flies the zone early, he's never looking to leave the zone early, he's never on the wrong side of the puck. You have players that will try to go in and be responsible and try to get the puck away, but if he doesn't go in under the forward, if he loses the battle, the guy has a clear path to the net. He's a guy that hits … that's a good candidate in my mind."
Dudley also supported Richards' candidacy.
"Going as far back as junior, he gave you 150 percent," Dudley says. "He was an offensive player that when the puck got turned over, he worked just as hard to get back defensively as he did to score the goal. … He's going to make sure he's in the right position and not get caught. He's smart. The work ethic with a player like that … with players like Richards, he's so driven, I don't think he could live with himself if he wasn't good defensively."
Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk
, who won the Selke last season, could be in line to become just the fourth repeat winner since the advent of the award in 1978 if Richards does not wow the necessary number of voters.
Datsyuk is second in the League with a plus-36 rating, his third-straight season with at least a plus-30 mark. That number might be even more impressive than his League-best plus-41 last season, considering the Wings have allowed 232 goals through 78 games this season, 33 more than they allowed all of last season.
Datsyuk's 86 takeaways are second in the League, and his 56.7 percent success rate on faceoffs is sixth among players that have taken at least 1,000 faceoffs.
"He plays in all the situations. He makes everyone around him better," Wings coach Mike Babcock told NHL.com. "He's better in his own zone by far than any of the three perceived top players in the League. It's not even close."
Feaster said what makes Datsyuk so good defensively is his level of understanding of the game and where he should be every time he steps on the ice.
"You don't ever see him cherry-picking and trying for the home run without supporting things in the defensive zone," said Feaster. "Richards and Datsyuk are good at coming all the way back on the backcheck. Some guys come back, but they skate past the front of the net. They're not looking around, not picking up a man. Those guys are going to stop in front of the net, look around and pick up a man."
The same can be said of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler
, who this season has added an offensive element to his already vast defensive abilities.
Kesler played most of his first five NHL seasons as a center, but since Mats Sundin
's arrival he's been shifted to right wing. Regardless, he's excelled. Aside from his personal-best 25 goals and 57 points, his plus-8 rating is a career high, and he's 10th in the League among forwards with an average ice time of 3:19 per game shorthanded. He leads the team and is eighth in the League with 72 takeaways, and he has a 54.1-percent success rate on faceoffs.
"For me, he's always been a player where that's been his forte, that's the first thing I think about when I think of him, as opposed to point production," Feaster said of Kesler's defensive reliability. "He is a responsible guy, and he is a guy that can chip in offensively, as well."
In the eyes of at least a few beholders, Richards, Datsyuk and Kesler seem to be the most beautiful defensive forwards in the NHL.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.