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Nick Foligno deserves to be a Selke finalist

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The Captain has been one of the most outstanding defensive forwards in the league this season

Boston Bruins v Columbus Blue Jackets

With the premature conclusion of the 2019-20 NHL regular season made official, the process is underway to select the winners of the annual individual trophies. Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association had to submit their ballots by yesterday. All week, we will look at some awards which we feel deserve to go to one of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Today we begin with the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded since 1978 to the best defensive forward. Despite being an award for defense, it rarely goes to a defensive specialist. The winners are typically productive on the offensive end as well, so it’s more of an award for the best two-way forward. While all forwards are eligible, the award is typically dominated by centers. After all, these are the forwards who are generally given the most responsibility on both ends of the ice. The last winger to win was Jere Lehtinen of the Dallas Stars in 2003, but Vegas’s Mark Stone was the runner-up last season.

The Blue Jacket who I feel is worthy of this award this season is Nick Foligno. To be honest, I would not have thought of this prior to early March, when The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn used his advanced statistical model to break down the awards races. Based solely on a goal suppression metric, Foligno was second behind Tampa’s Anthony Cirelli. Per Luszczyszyn, “One surprise name might be Nick Foligno in second, a player who has had very strong defensive impacts in the past, but is playing the best defensive hockey of his career right now. He should get some consideration.”

I don’t know that anyone here - myself included - gave Foligno enough credit for his defensive work this season. His workload (he led all Columbus forwards in average time on ice) did not seem to match his production, with a third consecutive sub-40 point season. It was a far cry from his All-Star 31/42/73 season in 2014-15 or his 26/25/51 as a top line winger and PP contributor in 2016-17. Adding to the perception were three goalless droughts of 10 or more games (17 games in October and November, 22 in December and January, and 12 in late January and early February).

For the Selke, however, I’d prefer to ignore the offensive woes. But how do we determine which forwards are best defensively? It seems to me we should look at who excels at limiting shots attempts and goals allowed while on the ice. We can also compare goals against and expected goals against to measure the quality of shots allowed and the impact of goaltending.

While we will look at those figures for 5v5 play like we usually do, in this case it’s also worthwhile to account for penalty kill performance. After all, if these are the best defensive forwards then they should be counted on by their coaches for heavy shorthanded minutes. That’s when getting a defensive stop is most critical.

To get a list of comparables, I pulled from this Athletic poll of NHL head coaches by Pierre LeBrun and this deep dive from The Athletic by Charlie O’Connor. The names on this list also can be found on recent Selke leaderboards - because we know that the writers love voting for guys they’ve voted for before. Ryan O’Reilly of St. Louis was last year’s winner, while Patrice Bergeron of Boston (4) and Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles (2) accounted for six of the previous seven trophies going back to 2012. Stone was last year’s runner-up while Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier was runner-up to Kopitar in 2018. Rounding out our list are Cirelli and Montreal’s Phillip Danault, each of whose reputation has been rising (they finished 11th and 7th in voting last season, respectively).

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are other players who could be included but I had to draw the line somewhere. These other contenders include Brad Marchand and Teuvo Teravainen. Please feel free to make the case for another player in the comments.

All stats come from the indispensable Natural Stat Trick. The fields below are all sortable.

Selke Candidates

Player Team GP 5v5 TOI/GP 5v5 CA/60 5v5 FA/60 5v5 SA/60 5v5 GA/60 5v5 xGA/60 OZ Starts/60 DZ Starts/60 PK TOI/GP PK CA/60 PK FA/60 PK SA/60 PK GA/60 PK xGA/60
Player Team GP 5v5 TOI/GP 5v5 CA/60 5v5 FA/60 5v5 SA/60 5v5 GA/60 5v5 xGA/60 OZ Starts/60 DZ Starts/60 PK TOI/GP PK CA/60 PK FA/60 PK SA/60 PK GA/60 PK xGA/60
Foligno CBJ 67 14:19 53.78 37.14 26.33 1.88 1.95 10.26 11.76 1:31 89.87 62.85 48.75 4.70 5.21
Bergeron BOS 61 12:03 48.95 37.04 26.35 2.20 1.86 15.34 8.48 1:43 83.14 63.21 47.26 5.12 6.04
Couturier PHI 69 13:58 47.90 37.07 27.31 2.11 2.08 12.88 11.51 2:03 77.38 61.31 47.78 8.03 6.60
O'Reilly STL 71 14:17 45.92 36.47 26.65 1.95 2.01 10.28 11.64 2:09 119.04 90.76 67.58 9.43 8.09
Kopitar LAK 70 15:01 53.25 41.15 28.37 2.05 2.26 9.99 10.67 1:46 111.23 81.73 61.42 9.19 7.36
Cirelli TBL 68 13:21 50.86 38.71 28.01 1.52 1.94 10.30 12.02 2.48 111.62 80.80 58.79 9.43 7.13
Stone VGK 65 13:58 51.20 38.06 27.55 2.44 2.04 7.93 7.53 1:54 112.27 85.77 62.64 5.78 7.62
Danault MTL 71 13:57 49.35 37.67 27.07 2.36 1.99 8.48 12.17 2:31 101.36 84.58 61.76 7.72 6.85

At 5v5, we see that Foligno trails only Kopitar among this group in terms of minutes per game.

Foligno is last of these eight in shot attempts allowed, but third in unblocked shot attempts allowed. This seems to reflect the defensive scheme of the Blue Jackets as a whole this season, where they were often outshot by their opponents but effectively limited the number of high danger chances. The large gap in those numbers means there were over 16 blocked shots per 60 minutes when Foligno was on the ice. Some of those were the captain himself sacrificing his body (50 blocked shots this season, among all situations). From there, Foligno takes the lead in suppressing shots on goal, just a fraction ahead of Bergeron.

Now, on to goal suppression. Foligno trails only Cirelli in goals allowed. This is certainly helped by the outstanding work between the pipes from Joonas Korpisalo in December and Elvis Merzlikins in January and February. That being said, the expected goals allowed shows only a small difference from the actual goals allowed. Bergeron leads this category, with Foligno bunched up with Cirelli and Danault.

I also included zone start data here, to give a rough indication of how each forward was deployed. If someone is used a lot in the offensive zone, then that may artificially improve his defensive numbers. Keeping the puck away from the opponent is still important, but it’s easier to do when you start with the puck 200 feet away from your own goal. Bergeron’s ratio is heavily biased towards offensive starts, while Danault is the biggest defensive specialist of the group. Foligno is right in the middle of both categories. His deployment is most similar to O’Reilly.

As for the penalty kill, Foligno was actually the least utilized here on a per-game basis. That being said, I don’t think it’s a matter of lack of ability or trust. John Tortorella’s system likes to balance the load, with six forwards averaging more than a minute of PK time per game. Furthermore, with the aggression of the “power kill” it is more common for skaters to have shorter shifts as they frequently clear the puck.

Unlike even strength, Foligno is one of the leaders in shot suppression: third in all attempts, second in unblocked attempts,and third in shots on goal. Where he shines is goal suppression. He leads Bergeron by quite a bit in both goals allowed and expected goals allowed. (I’m surprised that defending champion O’Reilly compares so poorly to the group on the penalty kill).

Before giving Foligno TOO much credit for penalty killing, however, it’s worth noting that Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, and Riley Nash all have similarly excellent numbers on the kill.

In the end, I think the biggest hurdle for Foligno to clear here is perception. He likely won’t be considered because he wasn’t already on the radar. He has not been a candidate before, receiving votes just once (a single fourth place vote, good for a 38th place finish in 2015). It’s too bad, because as a 32 year old, he’s not likely to have a better defensive season than this. He deserves national recognition for his role as an on-ice leader of one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league this season.