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Sean Couturier is leading man for the Selke at the midway point, and it’s much deserved

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He’s been close the past two years, but will this year finally be the one we see the dominant two-way center take home some hardware?

Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PWHA) released their midseason awards last week, and Sean Couturier is leading the way for the Selke Trophy. In 2017-18, Couturier’s breakout season, he finished second in Selke voting to Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. Last season, he finished sixth as Ryan O’Reilly took home the hardware. Both years I made arguments as to why Couturier should have won the award, so hey, maybe third time’s a charm?

Ever since he was given a more offensive role in the Flyers’ lineup — one of the very few good things Dave Hakstol did in his time here — Couturier has shown why he was a back-to-back 96 point scorer in the QMJHL. He’s posted consecutive 76 point seasons, and while he’s on pace for 70 this season, his defense has been as good as ever. So having been in the running especially the past two seasons, a strong finish to the 2019-20 season could just give him the trophy he deserves.

The two men he’s up against at the moment are no slouches, in the defending winner in O’Reilly, and four time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron. As always, it’s going to be an uphill climb with Bergeron anywhere near the top three, given the reputation he possesses. But if Couturier continues to hold his current pace, or even improve upon it, he absolutely will deserve that trophy come season’s end.

Basic, advanced, and competition-based metrics

Basic Stats (Couturier, Bergeron, & O’Reilly)

Player G A P TK GV +/-
Player G A P TK GV +/-
Couturier 13 30 43 31 30 15
Bergeron 21 20 41 29 19 15
O'Reilly 9 35 44 52 19 3

All three are about as even as it gets in terms of point totals, although Bergeron’s 41 points are in 42 games while O’Reilly’s is in 51 and Couturier’s in 50. Now of course this is the award for “best defensive forward” but we all know defense isn’t all these guys look at when deciding this award. Couturier and Bergeron are pretty even as well in takeaways vs. giveaways, with O’Reilly blowing them both out of the water. While it’s pretty easy to argue those two stats don’t tell the full story of how good/bad someone is defensively, they’re still something writers will be looking at.

Funnily enough, plus/minus is probably helping Couturier at the moment with the writers who still see value in it, given O’Reilly’s plus one relative to Couturier’s plus 15. But now is when we dive into the nitty gritty, and look at some underlying numbers to assess just how good Couturier has been, and if he really is deserving of his first Selke.

(The statistics below are only at 5-on-5)

Metrics (Coutuier, Bergeron, & O’Reilly)

Player CF% CA/60 xGF% xGA/60
Player CF% CA/60 xGF% xGA/60
Couturier 55.37 50.06 55.09 2.17
Bergeron 56.45 49.33 58.56 1.8
O'Reilly 52.55 46.5 51.05 2.06

So something that I think is fair to talk about here is Couturier’s main defensive metrics relative to his main counterparts. Bergeron and O’Reilly actually have the edge in these departments, although it is important to point out Bergeron’s offensive zone start percentage is quite higher than both Couturier and O’Reilly. He’s at a 64.25 relative to Couturier at 51.89 and O’Reilly at 48.31.

The definition of the Selke is “best defensive forward” so by that logic I could see a really good argument for O’Reilly here, given out of the three I think it’s fair to say he has the best overall defensive stats. With that said, the overall package of Couturier’s game should prevail, and it might in the most ironic of ways. The Selke is about defense, but not since Kris Draper back in 2004, has a Selke winner scored 40 points or less in a season. Offense does matter to the writers, and Couturier’s mix of strong point totals and very good play-driving metrics will appease both the old age view and new age view.

There’s another aspect of Couturier’s game that I believe ends up being the difference over O’Reilly. I’ve made this very vocal over the past two years come awards time, Patrice Bergeron is not the elite level defensive center he used to be. That’s not to say he’s bad defensively by any means, but I think there are more deserving candidates who could fill his spot if these three hold as the nominees.

What you do vs. the best of the best applies to our everyday lives, but especially in sports. Puck IQ does fantastic work to showcase how players drive play vs. different levels of competition, and in this instance, we’ll be looking at the play of these three centermen vs. Elite competition.

Couturier, Bergeron, & O’Reilly vs. Elite competition

Player TOI CTOI% CF% CA/60
Player TOI CTOI% CF% CA/60
Couturier 263.38 37.9 60.6 43.1
Bergeron 247.18 47.6 48.7 52.2
O'Reilly 292.5 41 45.5 51.7

It is important to point out that comparatively, Couturier has had the easier job vs. elite competition out of the three. Bergeron’s numbers are honestly surprising here given that almost half of his total minutes on the season are coming vs. this talent level, but still vastly lower than Couturier. Speaking of our boy, he’s leading all centermen in Corsi vs. elite competition, and Corsi-Against per 60.

CTOI is basically the percent of total time on ice vs. a specific level of competition, and while Couturier has a lower percentage there, it’s not like he’s going up against Robert Hagg’s of the world every time out there. His 37.9 percent still places him in the top 25, and his overall TOI has him in the top 20. Again, if I had to look at just the defensive aspects, O’Reilly would probably get a strong look from me if I was part of the voting. My edge would go to Couturier at the end (maybe a little bit of bias but hey, that’s life), but it wouldn’t be cut and dry.

While I didn’t list this in the table above, it is pertinent to look at some of the shot quality numbers in this argument as well. It’s tough to limit shot attempts from the elite of the elite in the NHL, but even tougher to limit high quality chances. Couturier is sixth among centermen in Dangerous Fenwick Against per 60 (DFA/60), while Bergeron and O’Reilly are 21st and 41st respectively.

Conclusion

Sean Couturier probably should have won the Selke two seasons ago, and at the very least deserved to be a nominee last season. One thing that could end up helping him out a great deal, oddly enough, is that O’Reilly won the Selke last season. This might be the year where the writers just decide it’s Couturier’s year to win it barring a second-half drop off which I just don’t see coming.

What could hurt him though, is Bergeron needing just one more Selke to hold the most in NHL history. At the moment, he’s tied with Bob Gainey, so it should be interesting to see how hard the writers want to push to give him his fifth this season. I don’t think it will happen, unless he just dominates the hell out of the league in the second half, but even then the rationale might be “well we can get him his fifth later on.”

The writers are strange, folks, and make very interesting decisions when it comes to handing out these awards. I think there’s a strong enough argument for Couturier to win this season, and it would be a pleasure to see it happen for a guy who is no more than a third line center, after all.

*All data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ, and hockey-reference