Two-way forwards, Defensive forwards, and the Selke debate



A principle problem of mainstream hockey talk revolves around finding the right value for a defensive player. Evaluating a player’s defensive attributes, unfortunately, falls into some pitfalls on the surface. It is absolutely impossible to watch every game and judge each player well defensively, which causes some problems when it comes to handing out individual awards at the end of the season. The Selke Trophy is awarded year after year to the forward who “demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game”. It actually isn’t.

The Selke is awarded by reputation rather than individual merit, thus the nominees for the Selke Trophy appear to be quite better than the nominees for the Hart Trophy. Ask yourself a question if you’d rather Ryan Kesler, Pavel Datsyuk or Jonathan Toews on your team or Daniel Sedin, Corey Perry and Martin St. Louis. Even if age isn’t an issue, you’re looking at three top centremen in the game versus three wingers who had career years on top lines.

Lately, the award has had so many repeat winners due to the fact that defensive players play well in the eyes of many in the voting hockey media due to confirmation bias. If Pavel Datsyuk (or Jere Lehtinen) play well enough against a team a PWHA member is covering, that puts them at an advantage. Every good defensive play will be applauded, and every poor play will be rationalized.



Pavel Datsyuk was 3rd on his team among forwards as far as defensive zone starts per game played and 2nd among centremen (Henrik Zetterberg). Ryan Kesler saw more offensive minutes this year thanks to Vancouver’s addition of Manny Malhotra. Jonathan Toews saw sheltered minutes in Chicago. These are not negative traits, but shouldn’t the defensive forward award be awarded to a player who is actually called upon to carry the majority of defensive minutes for his team? Barring that, a player who plays well enough in a defensive role, or, in an offensive role, prevents a much lower number of shots compared to comparable players?

This is what has happened in the NHL. The Selke Trophy was awarded to Ryan Kesler this season, even though he deserved it last season. This season he earned it because he had a reputation as a strong defensive forward, and managed to score 41 goals. As a two-way player, he is the best on the Canucks, but Manny Malhotra was on the ice for six fewer unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) per 60 minutes of play at even strength.

Some of the best defensive forwards in the league (being, success at preventing shots), fit the mould of players such as Patrick Elias, Malhotra, Steve Ott, Adam Hall or Jarred Smithson. None of these players, save Malhotra, cracked the top 20 in vote total, but the list, one through four, featured some of the better two-way forwards in the league.

A two-way forward is a player that I’d judge to have done equally well at both ends. The traditional definition has unfortunately leaned in the direction of a “two-way forward” being more of a “no-way forward” in essence, a depth player who doesn’t score much. That definition is changing, as players such as Ryane Clowe, Ryan Kesler, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron or David Backes are getting their due. Each player faces relatively tough situations but is successful at either end in a high unblocked shot-attempt differential. These statistics are recorded by the NHL as part of their RTSS project and are logged by websites such as Behind The Net, Hockey Analysis and Time On Ice.

The defensive aspect of the game is certainly just as valuable as the offensive side, as preventing a goal against is worth just as much in the scheme of the scoreboard as a goal for. RTSS, and accounting for variables when we sift through the data allows us to see what happens on the ice without being blinded by our previous impressions.

Understanding that many of you come to this website (okay, all of you) for information about your team, the top two-way player and defensive forward for each club, according to adjusted unblocked shot attempt totals, are as follows:

Defensive Forwards:

Calgary – Tim Jackman

Edmonton – Linus Omark

Toronto – Colby Armstrong

Vancouver – Manny Malhotra

Winnipeg – Chris Thorburn

Two-way Forwards:

Calgary – Michael Backlund

Edmonton – Linus Omark

Toronto – Mikhail Grabovski

Vancouver – Ryan Kesler

Winnipeg – Andrew Ladd

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Firstly, as new overlord im kinda sad that there is no “Fist” anywhere in your post Mr. Wilson… for shame!

    Secondly… Omark!?!?! You gotta be pooping me if he was Edmonton’s best defensive and two-way forward last year! I’ve never been been in the fight against math guys and “saw them good” guys, mostly I just like da hockey but no way can Omark be our best defensive forward by a long run.

  • John Chambers

    Omark?! Did he even take the puck away from one player last season? Not just try, but actually take the puck away. And if he was the best defensive forward AND best two-way forward for the Oilers, then it’s no wonder they finished last.

    I am more inclined to pick Horcoff for both categories. Not that he played well either, but he at least showed some semblance of two-way play, which the other centres did not demonstrate.

    • Wax Man Riley

      Actually that’s one aspect of his game that’s pretty good. His quick hands and tenacity for the puck made him the best Oiler at taking pucks away. Where his weakness lies is defensive positioning and anticipation on where the other team is moving the puck and how they’re setting up in terms of offensive schemes. If the Oilers and Omark develop his defensive game and educate him on North American schemes than he could be a decent defensive player. He has the raw tools just lacks the desire and knowledge to play in his own end, mostly due to maturity and the fact he’s played in Europe his entire life until last season. Hopefully the Oilers can develop him in the Kris Versteeg mold. I agree though, if at this point Omark is statistically your best forward the team is in trouble.

      PS. This article is really good. I think a lot of hockey fans have thought that the Selke trophy is awarded on reputation rather than defensive skill. A player shouldn’t have to be an offensive difference maker/high profile player to win the Selke it’s a defensive award.

      • paul wodehouse

        I don’t think you have any idea what you are talking about to be honest.

        Omark gets dumped on for his defensive play because he was -16, not because of his positioning.

        In fact, I challenge you to watch the videos for every 5v5 goal against Omark was on the ice for (35 of them) and tell me how many times Omark was out of position or lacked proper anticipation.

        You might be lucky if you can count 5. He had the combination of being on the ice for a bunch of really bad goals against, which skewed his +/- and made him look worse than he is.

        • French Toast Mafia

          Actually I watched a lot of games. He was a very good forechecker but once the puck left the offensive zone he was no longer as tenacious on the puck and it was Paajarvi not Omark who rushed back to take defensive positioning. Also I said it’s his weakness not that he’s the weakest on the team. The list of bad defensive forwards in Edmonton is obviously longer than most and he’s definitely not the worst defensive forward on the team.

          Where would these videos be because I’d be interested in watching them.

    • justDOit

      Yes he did. I remember one sequence late in the season (might have been against vanlandia) where he was in deep, created a scoring chance, then stripped the puck off the dman, then got checked, then stole the puck again and might have even gotten another scoring chance.

    • French Toast Mafia

      mark?! Did he even take the puck away from one player last season?

      The is the dumbest question I have read on this site.

      Forgive me if you are a blind person who relies on the likes of Michaels, Stauffer and Mcguire for your player insight.

      As for Pick….. Touchy feely buddy!

      SAYTALK: that is all we need to know.

      Now if you were: RESULTFACT:

      Though omark at the start of his NHl surprises me the last 20 games. He was!

  • Ok so ‘defensive forward’ is the person with the least amount of shots against?

    And the ‘two-way forward’ is the guy with the highest unblocked shot attempt differential per 60 minutes of even strength play?

  • Reading is fundamental you guys;

    “the top two-way player and defensive forward for each club, ACCORDING TO ADJUSTED UNBLOCKED SHOT ATTEMPT TOTALS, are as follows:”

    He just used one stat/formula to try and back up his hypothesis. He wasn’t using his own personal opinion to state that Omark was winning the Selke next year. Sssssssssseeeeeeeetttttttllllllleeeeeeeeee.

  • John Chambers

    We were having this debate on The Nation a few weeks ago about the Moneyballization of the NHL and the likelihood that teams take advanced stats into consideration. In the end things like Corsi get distorted based on whether your top Defensive or Two-Way players play against the other team’s top talent or not. Meanwhile, defining top talent is challenging because the league is full of guys like Dany Heatley and Kovalchuk who bang tons of goals and bleed even more chances.

    As a result it becomes a scouting-driven seen him sport. To your point Cam, the Selke becomes a vote amongst MSM writers as to who they feel they would rather have on the ice against the other team’s top line if the game was on the line; a vote that occurs in early April that is usually predicated on a player’s demonstrated ability from the previous year’s playoffs along with how many goals they scored, +\- rating, etc.

    I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. I’ve noticed that the subjective nature of hockey is frustrating to stats junkies.

    • Interesting point about moneyball (should be a great movie too) I wonder how it would actually work in the NHL, I don’t think it would and I think advanced stats are looked at way too much from some people (I don’t think GMs put too much weight into it, thats what scouts and other front office people are for), I think advanced stats are overrated.

      Just my opinion, mostly because I don’t like figuring them all out haha. They are useful and interesting to look at but shouldn’t be huge factors when discussing a player.

    • Teams use a number of stats outside of boxcar stats including Corsi to track players’ performance. They have been using that one for almost 40 years.

      The subjective nature of the description of hockey is frustrating to stat junkies because a lot of times the narrative goes against what can be proven.

  • Krusher

    Sweet! Omark for the Selke!!! That statement is about as insane as saying I can bench press 300 lbs. LMAO! Whatever theory or calculation was used to come up with that should be put into a shredder.

  • Ok, this is the 2nd article in a row with a nonsensical relationship between variable used and conclusion drawn.

    Linus Omark defensive specialist? If that didnt give away how broken the logic is then I dont know what will.

  • paul wodehouse

    Linus Omark? the Selke award?
    …in the same sentence?

    i’m not a stats/numbers guy at all… when i look at the minus16 Omark generates in 51 games played he’s the second worst plus/minus player on the team after Sam Gagner (-17) who played 68 games…

    …Omark the best defensive forward and the best two-way forward on the team?

    …how much koolaid does it take for this to work?

  • I have seen quite a few stats on Omark’s year and if you do look closely, the number of shots for and against while he was on the ice are much much higher on the for side. While that also says a lot for his line mates, the opposition just did not take a lot of shots while Omark was on the ice. You could call it sheltered or just that a lot of the play was in the neutral or offensive zone while Omark was out there. You might not consider it great defence as he is not always skating backwards or actually causing the other team to turn it over, but whatever he is doing, it isn’t giving up a lot of shots. It kind of goes with the best defence is a good offence sort of mentality.

  • justDOit

    To put a little more of a ‘reality based’ spin on Omark’s defensive traits, don’t think of him as the best defensive forward for the Oilers, just think of him as the ‘least worst’ defensive Oiler.

  • Danny Gray

    Interesting to Colby Armstrong listed here. The Leafs were a better team with him in the line-up. A lot of us were left scratching out heads as to why. Would love to see a more in-depth look at his contributions.

  • paul wodehouse

    Cam Charron is an idiot for trying to use the “Moneyballization” stats to prove things. Cam, go back and talk to your twitter buddy Mike Mallen.

    In all seriousness,

    Cam, think about how many people are reading this post if you have this many people in the comment section debating. That can only be a good thing. It is also probably why the CBC keeps Mike Milbury employed but that’s a story for another day.

    “Moneyballization” is a term of ignorance. Please sir, use sabrmetrics as the terminology as it pertains to baseball. Hockey GM’s are still trying to understand how advanced metrics can help them and what can be measured.

    I wish I had taken statistics in University, but then again, I wish I had my head on straight and done something based in math, science, or computer science.

    I would like to see a metric that measures the following:

    Defensive Zone clears + Scoring chances created from defensive zone clears/defensive zone scoring chances by opposing team.

    The defensive zone clears would be a stat that measures every time a defending team clears the puck from there own end where the play continues. For instance, icing the puck would not be a defensive zone clear nor would a delay of game by putting the puck over the net. However, if the opposing team were to commit an offside when returning to the zone, that would be a successful defensive zone clear.

    Scoring Chances created from defensive zone clears would be any time a scoring chance was created from a clear, which seems pretty explanatory. However, this will include all odd man rushes that don’t result in a shot on net as well.

    Defensive Zone Scoring chances by opposing team would be any scoring chance the opposing team had while the defending player was in the defensive zone.

    Hopefully this measurement would be able to remove the performance of the goaltender in the defensive zone.

    This stat could not be used alone but in conjunction with other defensive stats.

  • paul wodehouse

    Dawgbone …remember i’m not a numbers guy so i need this assertion made clearer with word analysis… you can explain that Omarks’ minus 16 doesn’t say anything of the reality of being minus 16…without the numbers thing in the equation (and this is where my mind addles) you contend that he might have fallen victim instead to being bad at finding the right place to be in the defensive zone and the anticipation of where he should be in his own end? is there just no tracking his minus 16 and translating it into being that bad ?…so he’s still a Selke candidate?

    i know he doesn’t completely suck at his defensive skills because it’s plain to see an acute tenacity for regaining possession of the puck when he gives it up or simply loses it to another player…
    numbers stat is misleading for sure.

  • paul wodehouse

    Dawgbone EDIT: i may have thought out loud and confused myself …(big surprise) there IS tracking his minus 16 via video and with that these numbers really are skewed yes?

    memo to self …when number stats are being used in ANY discussion going forward
    SHUT THE F*@K UP pg

  • DieHard

    Can’t wait to see what Omark does this year. I think he’ll be great and all you nay-sayers will start to understand just what the Oiler’s have. I like his swagger and this team needs more of it.

  • French Toast Mafia

    Any type of stats analysis that says Linus Omark is the best defensive forward on the Oilers is so unbelievably inaccurate it should never be used or talked about again… ever

  • French Toast Mafia

    French toast mafia: and the like

    You have been watching TSN and Mcguire for so long you are thinking(bahahahahaha) like leafs fans.

    Go to that tsn Love>

    Sheep Do I here Sheep.

    • French Toast Mafia

      How does what I said make me sound like a leafs fan or have anything to do with Mcguire?

      Omark just shouldnt be talked about as the best defensive forward or two way forward on any team in the league.

  • Krusher

    Omark was not a defensive forward. He did, however, by my eye, carry the offensive play enough while he was on the ice that shots against may have decreased as a result of puck possession.

    No numbers behind this, just my opinion.