The NHL's Frank J. Selke Trophy tends to fly under the radar among casual fans, but not in team front offices. General managers and scouts talk regularly about wanting to draft or acquire two-way players or 200-foot players who are high performers on both the offensive and defensive ends of the regulation-length North American pro rink. They are Selke-type players.
The Selke (pronounced sell-kee) is the league's annual regular-season award given "to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game." The winner is selected by a vote of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
The yearly top-getters in today's NHL typically are notable playmakers on the offensive end (strong on assists) while rarely failing to get back on defense to help prevent the odd-man rush (such as 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 breaks on goal by opponents that typically leave one or two defenders isolated).
The two-way player fights for puck possession on all parts of the ice, whether possessing the puck or not. The player is equally active in the corner scrums that are integral to scoring or preventing goals.
Another set of duties for the defensive-minded forward or a group of three forwards playing on a "checking line": forechecking and backchecking. The "forecheck" refers to the forward skating in the offensive zone to recover a puck turned over by a teammate or if his team has dumped the puck into the zone. The "dump and chase" style of offense was more common in earlier decades, but you will still see it used at times, especially to help a team change up their players on the fly. Hockey remains the only major sport in which players substitute in and out while the game action continues.
Backchecking is critical to winning games, though not a glory role. It means the forward is getting back on defense, skating to catch up with the attacking players, bumping or at least jostling the players with the puck. The 200-foot player consistently fights for puck possession in all three zones of the ice-and that "compete factor" or competitiveness is highly desired by general managers, scouts, player development directors and team sports psychologists.
The Selke Trophy dates back to the 1977-78 season. The NHL's Board of Governors (owners or designated alternative governor) moved to establish an award and original trophy to recognize the unsung forwards who were superior at the defensive components of sport. It's possible the owners had Bob Gainey in mind; the Montreal forward was the Selke winner for the first four seasons of the award.
The trophy honors Frank J. Selke, an executive with both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, who along with his first boss, Conn Smythe, proved instrumental in building Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931. Selke and Smythe won three Stanley Cups together in Toronto, then Selke won six more as an executive with the Canadiens. Selke was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1960.
Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, one of the most respected active players, has won the Selke four times to match Bob Gainey. Three-time winners are Guy Carbonneau (Montreal), Jere Lehtinen (Dallas) and Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit). It is not accidental that all of these players have won Cups with their teams and it must be noted that Datsyuk was a particularly remarkable offensive magician with the puck who by all reports worked just as hard on his defensive game.
NHL Seattle GM Ron Francis won the Selke for the 1994-95 season, the same year he won the Lady Byng (an upcoming entry in our Trophy Thursday series). Fellow GM Steve Yzerman of Detroit, won a Selke as a player with the Red Wings in 1999-2000.
St. Louis Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly was named the Selke winner at last June's NHL Awards. It is a regular-season vote, but O'Reilly proved the worth of the 200-foot player as the Blues won their first-ever Cup with O'Reilly named the playoffs most valuable player.
"I do take a lot of pride in [playing all 200 feet of the ice]," said O'Reilly on Awards night. "To actually get rewarded for it, I think back to when I was really young. My dad always instilled that: put your paddle [stick blade] on every little play, even if you don't have the puck. Find a way to make an impact."
Bergeron, the four-time winner, was a finalist last season. Same for Vegas forward Mark Stone. Both are Selke contenders again this season. Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar has won the award twice and still plays like a Selke finalist at 34 years old.
Florida's Aleksander Barkov is an established front-runner. Plus, he is off to a fast scoring start for the Panthers for new coach Joel Quenneville, who places Barkov's defensive skills in the same "smart, dependable, can do it all on both sides of the puck" category as Chicago Jonathan Toews during the three-Cup title run from 2011 to 2015 when Quenneville was behind the bench.
One statistical monitor for Selke winners is time on ice; when it bumps over 20 minutes per game it typically signals the forward is used during shorthanded "penalty kills" and/or late in close games to prevent a tying goal. O'Reilly averaged two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game last season.
Other potential Selke finalists to watch: New Jersey's Kyle Palmieri is a 24-plus goal scorer who is praised by hockey quantitative analysts who note when he is on the ice, the Devils face the lowest number of "high-danger" shots by opponents. Philadelphia's Sean Courturier gets lots of analytics love himself for his stick and body checking on the defensive end. Look for both to get significant Selke votes in April.