by PuckStopsHere on 04/07/10 at 12:57 PM ET
When I write about the Selke Trophy race this year, I get a few comments that suggest that Pavel Datsyuk should be considered the leading Selke contender due largely to his NHL lead in takeaways. Datsyuk has a sizeable lead in takeaways. He has 125 and Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks is second with 81. Datsyuk has 54% more takeaways than anyone else in the NHL. Is that one number enough to win the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward? I argue that it isn’t.
The main argument against Datsyuk winning the Selke Trophy is that he is not used in enough of Detroit’s prime defensive situations. He has only played 59 minutes shorthanded, while other Selke candidate forwards have upwards of 200 minutes shorthanded. If Datsyuk does not play in enough defensive situations, he isn’t as good a Selke candidate as one who does. That is not to say that shorthanded time is the only defensive situation, but it is a symptom of how Detroit uses Datsyuk. They roll out all four lines for as much of the game as possible and do not make much effort to play Pavel Datsyuk in defensive situations.
Does the number of takeaways that Datsyuk has change that argument? No, it shows Datsyuk can takeaway the puck from his opponents, but it doesn’t show that he does it in defensive situations. In fact, a large number of takeaways are offensive plays made in the offensive zone.
The main problem with takeaways is that they are a subjective statistic. What is scored a takeaway in one rink might not be scored that way in another. It is often hard to make sense of the numbers because of scorer bias. Pavel Datsyuk has such a large lead in takeaways that this is likely a real effect and not merely a scorer bias effect.
But what does having a lot of takeaways mean? Takeaways are not the only way to play defence. In fact, looking at the takeaway statistics, many top defensive players are not present. If I asked you to name the top defensive players in the NHL, who would you name? Probably you would name defencemen. People like Duncan Keith, Nicklas Lidstrom, Drew Doughty and Zdeno Chara would fall on a lot of lists. These are not players who are among the league leaders in takeaways. The league leaders this year are Datsyuk, Kesler, Daniel Alfredsson, Kyle Okposo, Mark Streit (who leads all defencemen), Jamie Benn, Joe Thornton and others. There is no reason to imagine these are the best defensive players in hockey. The fact that only one defenceman is present on that list is suspect (the second highest ranked defenceman Joni Pitkanen places 30th in the league) is suspect.
Clearly this shows that takeaways cannot be the only meaningful defensive number. Too many good defensive players do not rate. Defensive often is good positioning that prevents offensive chances from ever starting, it is hitting and it is not letting your opponents get the puck in the first place. It is many things well beyond takeaways. In fact, takeaways are often an offensive weapon. When a player is stripped of the puck as he is trying to break out of his defensive zone, it immediately creates an offensive opportunity. In most cases, there was little threat that any offensive chance was going to be produced if that player was not stripped of the puck. Takeaways are a skill that requires defensive ability, but they often are an offensive weapon.
Last year, the NHL’s takeaway leader was Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Datsyuk finished second). Malkin was the top scorer in the NHL. He was no defensive forward. He was quite poor when ranked by adjusted Corsi Number. Malkin was rarely used in defensive zone situations (he was among league leaders in offensive zone starts) and yet the opposition often drove possession of the puck into the Pittsburgh end of the ice. Malkin was able to use that offensive usage pattern to his advantage and lead the NHL in scoring. His takeaways helped as they created offensive opportunity. Malkin’s takeaway lead was not evidence that he should win the Selke Trophy. It was one of the weapons he used to score points in the NHL.
The takeaway stat is interesting, but it is tough to draw meaningful conclusions from it because it is a subjective statistic. It is clear that forwards get the majority of takeaways. It is clear that many of these takeaways are offensive plays that come from the counter-attack on a team breaking out of their zone. This one number definitely does not measure defensive excellence. In fact it very poorly measures anything from defencemen. Pavel Datsyuk may lead the NHL in takeaways by a significant margin and this shows that Datsyuk is the best player in the league in “takeaway hockey”. Takeaway hockey is not synonymous with defence. It is often an offensive move to takeaway the puck. Also, the vast majority of good defensive plays are not takeaways.
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