While watching Bob Gainey help lead the Montreal Canadiens over the Boston Bruins in the semifinal of the 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs, famed Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov called Gainey the best hockey player in the world, the possessor of the most complete package of skills that Tikhonov had ever seen, which is saying quite a lot.
Gainey balanced offensive and defensive efforts and was a mid-range scorer. As such, he was an unlikely candidate for any NHL awards. Yet, he was the best player in the world, according to a respected authority. The NHL then created another award, for best defensive forward, named it after former Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs executive Frank Selke Jr., and then gave it to Gainey.
Gainey won the award the first four years it was awarded. Guy Carbonneau and Jere Lehtinen, who both played in Dallas when Gainey was general manager there, have won it three times. Mike Peca, Rod Brind'Amour and Sergei Fedorov have won it twice. Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk
is the reigning Selke Award winner.
Once again, Datsyuk is a finalist for the Selke Award, along with Philadelphia Flyers center Mike Richards and Vancouver Canucks center/right winger Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. All three have excellent credentials and define the concept "hard to play against."
Kesler and Richards leave opponents bruised and battered, while Datsyuk leaves them feeling they've had their pocket picked. All three are team leaders. Richards is captain of the Flyers, while Datsyuk and Kesler are alternate captains.
The 2009 NHL Awards will be broadcast live from the Pearl Concert Theater inside the Palms Hotel Las Vegas on June 18 on VERSUS in the United States and CBC in Canada. Tickets to the 2009 NHL Awards are on sale at ticketmaster.com/nhlawards
and at the Pearl Concert Theater Box Office.
Here is a closer look at the finalists.
It's one thing for a Brian Leetch, Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky to carry the puck the length of the rink while using head and foot fakes to shed checkers, after all, they know where they're going. It's a whole 'nother thing for Datsyuk to strip those guys of the puck because he knows where they're going.
Obviously, Datsyuk can't read minds, but his extensive preparations, based on observations and past performances, gives him the book on opponent's tendencies. Just as those skilled puck carriers bring the puck up ice with that "you-don't-know-where-I'm going or if-I'm-passing" approach, Datsyuk gives those puck carriers no indication if he's going to poke-check, body check, or angle off his rival. He's extremely quick in getting in on the forecheck, excellent at filling passing lanes, and is a master at forcing the deep puck carrier to outlet pass to where Datsyuk wishes.
You have the puck and he's controlling the game! And, if Datsyuk isn't messing up your attack, the next line is centered by Kris Draper, a former Selke winner. See why the Red Wings are so good?
The Selke Award is a subjective judgment, largely based on observation and not entirely fairly judged by statistics. But Datsyuk was second in the NHL this season with 89 takeaways to leading scorer Evgeni Malkin. Datsyuk outscored Richards and Kesler, posting 32 goals and 65 assists for 97 points, fourth in the NHL.
Datsyuk was third in the NHL with a plus-34 rating, an important measure of defensive responsibility. He was ninth in winning in 56 percent of his faceoffs, important in keeping the puck out of the rival's hands. Datsyuk does his defensive mastery without a strong physical presence. He had only 33 blocked shots, 116th in the NHL, and 76 hits, which ranked 174th.Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks
Kesler is a very physical and emotional player who often brings out the anger in opponents. You know you've been in a hockey game after tussling all night with Kesler.
While Richards and Datsyuk play on top scoring lines for their teams, Kesler is versatile enough to center a checking line or play the rugged forward on the right side of the second line with Pavol Demitra and either Jannik Hansen or Mats Sundin.
Kesler compares unfavorably on a statistical basis with Richards and Datsyuk, trailing either or both in nearly every category used in this article but, again, the Selke is a subjective award and requires observation and judgment. He had 26 goals and 33 assists for 59 points, 63rd in the NHL this season.
Kesler was plus-8 and had two shorthanded goals. He won a valuable 54 percent of his faceoffs and ranked seventh among NHL forwards with 70 blocked shots. He tied for seventh with 74 takeaways. Mike Richards, Philadelphia Flyers
Richards quickly became the leader on the Flyers' roster. He was named an alternate captain last season and was promoted to captain before the 2008-09 season. He led the Flyers in assists, takeaways and faceoff percentage.
Richards came to the Flyers from the OHL Kitchener Rangers off an emotional loss in the Memorial Cup. The 24th pick in the 2003 Entry Draft was widely regarded among teams as the kind of player who could drive a team to a Stanley Cup, based on his intensity, and his balanced offensive and defensive contributions. He led his team to the Eastern Conference Final last season and the playoffs again this year. He is one of the three best players on his team and combines with Jeff Carter as the team's two best forwards.
Solidly built with a bulldog nature, he was an engaging young man with a quick sense of humor, but his intense approach to hockey became more evident in his second season. He challenged media assumptions he deemed incorrect and became a vocal defender of teammates and the organization. It was evident he was on his way to being a leader.
Richards is one of the hardest members of the NHL to play against. He uses his 5-foot-11, 195-bound body to punish opponents throughout the game, fighting for every puck in every inch and corner of the rink. He is extremely effective in battles along the boards for the puck and is tremendous at stripping puck carriers that result in breakaways. Richards led the NHL with seven short-handed goals.
He had a career year with 30 goals and 50 assists and was plus-22. Richards tied Chris Drury for the NHL lead among forwards with 90 blocked shots and finished 33rd with 147 hits. He was third among NHL forwards with 83 takeaways.