If there’s one lesson to take from Michael Lewis’ game-changing book “Moneyball,” it’s that traditional ways of thinking aren’t always correct. When it came to baseball, it was just illogical to treat walks as if they were borderline irrelevant, so on base percentage continues to push batting average to only the simplest discussions of that game.
The problem with hockey is that it’s simply not as easy to boil down to simple numbers as baseball. While baseball has an obvious point of action (pitch) and reaction (batter attempting to defeat that pitch), NHL games feature thousands of invisible calculations. Giveaways and takeaways might seem like reasonable hockey stats until you realize that another teammates’ mistake (in the case of some giveaways) or great forechecking pressure (in the case of some takeaways) often has as much to do with such an event as the players who are credited or penalized.
The murky nature of major NHL defensive stats makes me wonder: do we need to change the way we determine Norris and Selke Trophy candidates? In other words, are we depending on faulty defensive statistics and perceptions to decide these awards?
While Ryan Kesler deserves individual accolades, I’m not so sure he was even the best defensive forward in Vancouver. As Kent Wilson sagely pointed out, checking center Manny Malhotra absorbed a lot of the most disadvantageous situations to allow Kesler and Henrik Sedin to dominate opponents. Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was quick to admit that Kesler gained attention for his goals as much as for his defense.
“You know, I’m not quite sure about the description for that trophy,” Vigneault said. “All the guys that are up for it are great two-way players. They’re not the defensive type players that you had in the past like Guy Carbonneau or Bob Gainey who were really there to shut down the opposition. We never really asked [Kesler] to shut down anyone.”
While Kesler might have been a shaky choice in a highly literal sense, he was probably the best defensive forward of the three finalists. I’m not so sure the same can be said for Nicklas Lidstrom being the best all-around defenseman in 2010-11, however. While it’s great to see him win another Norris Trophy from the standpoint of pumping up his well-earned legacy, Lidstrom played only 23:28 minutes per game to Zdeno Chara’s 25:26 time on ice and Shea Weber’s 25:19. Lidstrom’s defensive numbers were – at times – disturbingly pedestrian, especially compared to his lofty legacy and his more leaned-upon colleagues. Lidstrom was great in the regular season, but he didn’t seem as crucial to his team as Weber or Chara was to theirs.
With his extensive penalty killing duties and strong faceoff skills, it’s easy to accept Kesler as the Selke winner. Lidstrom’s victory smells of name recognition, emphasizing points far too much for a defenseman and a general deficit in defensive stats that don’t require an accounting degree, though.
Obviously, these award ceremonies are for fun more than anything else. Still, if the league wants people to look back at different eras and say “That guy was the best defensive forward of that year,” then we might as well try to find him. Right now, I don’t think we’re really trying hard enough.