How did Elias Pettersson’s season stack up against the 2023 Selke nominees, and why wasn’t he nominated instead?

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 year ago
The Vancouver Canucks have won exactly one Frank J. Selke Trophy — an award handed out each year to “the National Hockey League forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game” as deemed by the PHWA — in their 50+-year franchise history (though the award only started being handed out in ’78.)
The sole winner was Ryan Kesler back in the storied 2010/11 season. Before that, and since then, the Canucks haven’t so much as pick up a nomination.
There are those who thought that might change as of 2022/23, with Elias Pettersson having put up a 102-point campaign that also included a truly stellar and consistent performance in his own end. Within one season, Pettersson (re-)established himself as the Canucks’ most impactful player offensively, defensively, and just in general terms of controlling the play on the ice, which are all typical hallmarks of the Selke nominee.
Alas, nominated he was not. The three Selke nominees this year will be Patrice Bergeron — looking to win his record-extending sixth award — along with Nico Hischier and Mitch Marner.
So, why not Pettersson? We decided to stack each player’s season up against each other to see how they measured up, and why PHWA voters might have had Pettersson coming up short.

Goals For and Against

They say that plus-minus is a flawed stat, and it is. A player can have one foot on the bench already and get either a plus or a minus despite being entirely uninvolved in the play. A great defender on a bad team might end up with a dismal rating because they’re constantly on the ice covering up their teammates flaws. On the whole, as a stat, it doesn’t really work.
But still, one of the first things that Selke voters consider when picking out their nominees is a player’s rate of goals for and against, specifically at even-strength — which is really just plus-minus with a few steps taken out.
 Even-Strength Avg TOIOn-Ice Goals ForOn-Ice Goals AgainstOn-Ice Goal Differential
From NaturalStatTrick.com
Here, despite all three nominees having reputations as workhorses, Pettersson wound up playing more even-strength minutes than all but Marner. He was on the ice for more goals against than any of them — including almost 40 more goals against than Bergeron — but also a high number of goals for. That’s partly a reflection of the quality of Pettersson’s team, a point we’ll return to often in this article, and also of their ‘run-and-gun’ setup.
The on-ice goal differential does heavily favour Bergeron and Hischier here, and especially Bergeron with his truly ridiculous results. But Pettersson does compare very favourably to Marner, especially once quality of teammates is taken into consideration, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Control of Play

Of course, nobody just looks at the surface-level numbers anymore. Fancy stats rule the day, and you rarely get a sniff of the Selke without posting a sparkling set of analytics.
 CorsixGShot ControlChance ControlHigh-Danger Chance Control
From NaturalStatTrick.com, at even-strength
Here, once again, Bergeron and Hischier stand head and shoulders above the pack, with the sort of possession and control stats that are only achieved by a handful of players each year. Cracking the 60% threshold is impressive for anyone, and even more so for a skater employed often in defensive and matchup situations.
Bergeron’s team, for example, gets about 25% more high-danger chances than their opponents when he’s on the ice. That’s considerable.
Again, Pettersson’s numbers compare best to Marner’s, though Marner is at least slightly ahead pretty much across the board. This is an area in which Pettersson can be seen to be approaching Selke territory, but is perhaps not quite there yet.
It is also, naturally, a bit of a reflection of the quality of the team. Linemates contribute heavily to “on-ice” statistics, and each of the three nominees skated with higher-quality linemates than Pettersson.

Penalty Killing

Those deemed “defensive forwards” are almost always expected to kill penalties. That was a mostly new duty for Pettersson in 2022/23, but one in which he did show extremely well.
 Avg Shorthanded TOIPower Play Goals Against Per 60Shorthanded Points
From NHL.com
One might be surprised to learn that Pettersson killed more penalties, on average, than Bergeron, though a fair bit less than Hischier and Marner.
Pettersson’s rate of getting scored against while shorthanded is the highest of this bunch, but it’s important to remember the context: for the first half of the season, Pettersson’s Canucks were the worst penalty-killers in history. That he recovered well enough to have his rate be in the same ballpark as Marner’s is thus pretty notable, as are those nine shorthanded points, which led the league.
But no one can really hold a candle to Bergeron’s almighty PK efficiency. A good chunk of the league gets scored on more at even-strength than Bergeron does shorthanded, and that’s all that really needs to be said about that. He should probably be considered among the greatest penalty killers of all-time by now.

Quality of Competition and Deployment

When it comes to Quality of Competition, all nominees and Pettersson spent the majority of their time playing against opposing top-sixes, and were well above the league average.
From HockeyViz.com
From HockeyViz.com
But in terms of how high above that average they were, Pettersson definitely lags a bit behind the pack, which makes sense as he often shared matchup duties with both Bo Horvat and JT Miller.
That changed continuously as the year progressed, however, and Pettersson began to pick up more and more responsibility, so we can expect this chart to shift significantly in the years to come.
Ideally, Pettersson will end up with a QualComp chart similar to Hischier’s, who definitely took on the greatest defensive load for his team of the nominees. If, like Hischier, Pettersson can shut down opposing top lines on a nightly basis while still putting up mondo points, the Selke nominations will surely follow.
 Defensive Zone Starts
From Hockey-Reference.com, at even-strength
It is particularly interesting to note, however, that Pettersson did start more of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone than either Bergeron or Marner, though a fair bit fewer than Hischier.
That says a lot about how his role has changed, with previous seasons seeing Pettersson start up to 65% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Still, team quality has to be a factor here. The Bruins and Leafs, as a whole, started more of their shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive, and that “hurt” Bergeron and Marner’s chances of starting more often in the D-zone.
And on that note…

Quality of Teammates

Clearly, Pettersson’s defensive performance still lags a little behind that of the real Selke crowd. But if there’s one qualifier that can and should be applied in Pettersson’s favour, it has to be quality of team and teammates.
Now, this does kind of work both ways. The notion goes that a real Selke winner should probably come from a winning team, because if their team’s not winning, then what good is all that defensive play really doing?
Still, something has to be said about what the three nominees were working with in comparison to what Pettersson was.
 Team RecordTeam Goals Against Per GameTeam Goal Differential
From NHL.com
Just look at that contrast. Bergeron’s team, for example, had a better goal differential than the Canucks by a whopping 150 goals. Does Bergeron deserve plenty of the credit for that record? Yes, absolutely. But not all of it, and he clearly benefited in turn from being part of a historically-successful squad.
The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of Hischier and Marner.
Pettersson, meanwhile, dealt with league-worst goaltending for much of the year, to say nothing of a patchwork blueline of questionable quality, and to say even less of a collection of fellow forwards that often struggled in their own end.
Pettersson spent almost the entire season alongside Andrei Kuzmenko, a first-year player who has a long way to go defensively. Bergeron, meanwhile, spent almost all of his time with Brad Marchand, a borderline Selke-worthy forward in his own right. The same could be said for Marner and Auston Matthews.
In the end, the Selke Trophy is known to be a reputation-based award. Bergeron might as well have the trophy named after him at this point. Marner has been putting up big points totals and excellent analytics since he entered the league. Even Hischier, a relative Selke newcomer, came into the NHL with a rep for two-way play. Given that this is the first year that Pettersson has even been in the conversation, it stands to reason that he would probably not have been under serious consideration even if his defensive results had stacked up well against the actual nominees…and, as we can see, they don’t quite yet.
So, it might be a few years yet before Pettersson gets the sort of recognition that comes with a Selke nomination.
But that he’s even in the same stratosphere, and so soon after his up-and-down 2021/22 campaign, should be seen as nothing less than heavily encouraging.
A Selke might not be in Pettersson’s immediate future. But that doesn’t mean there’s not one in his non-immediate future.
That next level seems entirely achievable from here on out.

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