**This article was written by Sheng Peng of FearTheFin.com. Sheng covered the Golden Knights in 2017-18 and a portion of 2018-19 before moving to San Jose to cover the Sharks. You can read all of Sheng’s work here.**
By Sheng Peng
It’s supposed to be the award for best defensive forward.
But left winger Nick Foligno knows he’s never going to win the Selke Trophy.
Foligno quipped, “I switch to center and maybe have a chance at it.”
That’ll help. Since 2008-09, just four wingers have finished in the top-six in Selke voting: Ryan Callahan was fourth in 2012, Marian Hossa was fifth in 2014, Max Pacioretty was sixth in 2015, and Mark Stone was sixth in 2017. Stone is also a finalist this year, the first winger to be so honored since Jay Pandolfo in 2007.
(This is ignoring David Backes, listed as a right winger, who finished second in 2012, and Henrik Zetterberg, listed as a left winger, who finished second in 2008. Both took over 1,000 faceoffs in their respective Selke finalist campaigns.)
The last winger to win the Selke was Jere Lehtinen in 2003.
What’s supposed to be a recognition for best defensive forward has become a centers-only club.
Hockey Hall of Fame journalist Michael Farber has voted on the Selke since “the time that Bob Gainey was winning it.” He offered, “Maybe if Mark Stone wins, that’ll restore a little bit of balance.”
Gainey, a left winger, won the inaugural Selke Trophy in 1978. Then he took the next three.
In fact, wingers like Gainey, Craig Ramsay, and Dirk Graham accounted for six of the first 14 Selke winners.
Farber pointed to three key reasons.
First, Gainey was a singular player.
“Anatoly Tarasov called Bob Gainey the perfect hockey player. He didn’t make mistakes,” Farber recalled.
Tarasov knew a special player when he saw one. He’s credited with establishing the Soviet Union as a dominant international hockey power in the 1950s.
Second, Gainey played in a different era. A defense-first forward stood out in an era where Marcel Dionne could score 135 points and finish 29 points behind Wayne Gretzky in the scoring race. This is exactly what happened in 1980-81, the last time Gainey won the Selke.
Farber noted: “The game, look at the ’80s, wasn’t what we have now. Quite often, there’d be a three-on-two one way, three-on-two the other way. Teams traded chances.
“So the emphasis on defensive hockey and the role of the centerman wasn’t the same that it is now.
“It’s much tighter. If you do give up odd-man rushes now, you make your coach apoplectic.”
Finally, Gainey played in an era when forwards, wingers included, were often used as “shadows.” That means a defensive player was assigned to follow the opposition’s top scorer all around the ice.
“A lot of these guys were wingers,” Farber said. “That’s why we saw wingers play a prominent part early on in the voting.”
As the game has evolved, however, assigning one player to follow another around for 200 feet, has gone the way of the enforcer. Modern coaches are likely to employ a team defensive effort, especially when skaters can’t clutch and grab to keep up like they could in the pre-lockout era.
Farber added that the “shadow” might not be the most efficient deployment of your players: “You have a lesser player spending first-line minutes chasing a star. Throws off your own structure and balance.”
He summed it up, “We view the game through a different prism than when Bob Gainey was playing against the best and making everybody’s life miserable.”
Today’s wingers, for the most part, accept that Selke voting revolves around the center now.
“For the most part, it should focus on centers,” left winger Pacioretty said. “They do most of the dirty work in the d-zone.”
“The centerman plays so much of a role in faceoffs and down-low coverage, more than a winger does,” right winger Callahan acknowledged.
Right winger Reilly Smith agreed: “Centers, you carry the bulk of the load in the defensive zone for most teams’ defensive structure.”
“It’s probably fair and will continue to be,” right winger Justin Williams said.
That said, the center isn’t doing all the dirty work.
“You play against a lot of guys who do a lot of great things on the wall, that help their centermen to have success,” Foligno pointed out.
A former NHL coach added, “Coaches bring that up all the time. They recognize the centerman is only 50 percent responsible for the faceoff. Wingers help the other 50 percent.”
“It’s tough to make an argument against some of the guys who have won the Selke,” Callahan said. “But as a winger, you do get overlooked sometimes.”
Will Stone push back against the tide tonight?
Stone laughed off the suggestion that he has to “win one for the wingers.”
But maybe, like Farber noted, “something has gone a little bit off” in Selke voting.
Data that didn’t exist a decade ago suggests Stone, like Gainey, is a singular player.
Andrew Berkshire of Sportsnet wrote in March: “I’ve been banging the drum that Stone is the Patrice Bergeron of wingers for at least three years now — and this might be his best season to date. He hangs with the best defensive centres in the league in individual contributions despite the fact centres get more opportunity to engage puck carriers.”
In terms of individual contributions, Berkshire was referring to preventing passes to the slot and loose puck recoveries:
Mark Stone has been traded to Vegas. Stone is one of the best 2-way wingers in the NHL. He ranks top-30 in points per game and impacts the game at an elite level defensively, hunting down pucks, ranked second among forwards in blocked passes per game. pic.twitter.com/aYTyYzMyw7
— The Point (@ThePointHockey) February 25, 2019
Stone himself noted that the game is continually evolving.
“Everybody kind of says centers have a bigger impact on the game,” the right winger said. “But I think now, it’s more of a five-man unit. You have to be able to [switch positioning] from center to wing a little bit.”
All that said, Stone is not thought to be the favorite to win the Selke.
Farber added, ironically, of a winger named Stone making off with the Selke, “It’s going to be a Sisyphean task. If they get to the top of the mountain, the boulder’s going to roll right back down again.” (Farber was displeased, in particular, that the Selke has become a scoring award too. He thought checking specialists like Pandolfo deserved their due.)
Perhaps for the winger family and Stone, just being a finalist is the victory.
“I remember when I got fourth in the Selke [in 2012] in New York, that was a huge honor,” Callahan said. “Just being recognized was big.”
Of course, winning would be better.