Thursday evening, the NHL announced that Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers won the Frank J. Selke Award for the 2019-20 season. The award recognizes the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive aspects of the game. Faced with stiff competition for the award with perennial nominees and former winners Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues, many expected Couturier to be snubbed for the award once again.
Here is video of Couturier being named as the winner of the Selke Trophy courtesy of Sportsnet:
Considering that Flyers Head Coach Alain Vigneault was a favorite to take home the Jack Adams Award for the NHL’s Coach of the Year and was beat out by Boston’s Bruce Cassidy, and Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher was shockingly omitted as a finalist for Executive of the Year; Flyers fans had every right to be pessimistic about Couturier’s chance to finally get recognized as a great two-way player this season. Shockingly, Couturier won the award convincingly by securing 117 first place votes in comparison to the 21 first place votes garnered by runner up Patrice Bergeron. The landslide victory left no doubt that Couturier has the respect of his peers and fellow players, as well as the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) who voted on the recipient of the award.
There goes the narrative that the NHL and people who follow the game are out to get the Philadelphia Flyers and that there is inherent bias against the team and its players.
With the Flyers losing in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the New York Islanders in seven games, Flyers fans seem to all have their emotions and thoughts of the team’s performance at opposite ends of a spectrum ranging from disappointment to hopeful. On the one hand, fans are very disappointed that the Flyers could not capture their form from earlier in the season and during the round robin and translate that play into tangible playoff success. The lack of creativity and consistency from the offensive players on the roster is concerning and exposed flaws in the notion that the clubs’ depth would enable the team to go on a long playoff run. On the other hand, valuable experience was gained for young players like Carter Hart and Ivan Provorov that can only pay dividends for the team in the future. Even players that struggled like Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny should be become better by going through the struggles that they did. Ultimately, the Flyers finally won a playoff round for the first time since 2012 and were within one game of the Eastern Conference Final even though they played nowhere near the best hockey that they were capable of.
Sean Couturier being recognized with the Selke Trophy for his two-way play (and clearly being the Flyers most valuable forward) is a nice way for the offseason to begin. It reinforces that the Flyers have come a long way in the short time that GM Chuck Fletcher has been in charge, and that there are some changes that this roster will undergo this offseason especially with the constraints of a flat salary cap for the next few years.
Pieces will be lost and added this offseason, but one thing will remain constant: Sean Couturier will and should remain a fixture of the Flyers core going forward. His Selke win entrenches that fact. In fact, there is a strong correlation between the Selke Trophy and the Stanley Cup that all Flyers fans need to be aware of. After all, the individual awards, recognition, and praise from the hockey world are great; however, the greatest recognition and praise in the sport comes with winning the Stanley Cup and celebrating team success.
Let’s take a look at how the Sean Couturier’s Selke Trophy win is a strong indicator that the Flyers may be much closer to Stanley Cup glory than most fans or pundits realize.
History of the Selke Award
The Frank J. Selke Trophy was first awarded after the conclusion of the 1977-78 season. If the current season were not counted, that means that the award covered a total of 41 years. Keeping in mind that the NHL season of 2004-05 was cancelled due to the lockout and labour dispute between the NHL and the NHLPA. That leaves us with 40 years of winners for the Selke Trophy. Here is the list of winners (from newest to oldest) courtesy of www.hockey-reference.com:
The first item that jumped out at me was the quality of player that won the award. Although these winners are recognized for their two-way game and contributions on the defensive side of the puck; quite a few were noted for their offensive game at other points of their careers like Steve Yzerman, Pavel Datsyuk, and Bobby Clarke. These players specifically, were widely recognized as some of the premier offensive players of their era during different parts of their careers and were successfully able to adapt their game into being more responsible at shutting down opposing players while still contributing offense for their respective teams.
This adaptability to morph into the type of player that a team needs on its roster has always been so undervalued and underappreciated throughout the history of the game. Even though there is an annual recognition of these types of players with the presentation of the Selke Trophy, there can be no doubt that the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy are far more memorable and celebrated as they celebrate offensive play that resonates much more with fans of the game.
Even more impressive is to judge the caliber of player that has won the award more than once. Here is the list of Selke Trophy winners which include the amount of times that each player has won the trophy (once again courtesy of www.hockey-reference.com):
With 40 seasons of Selke history to look back upon, only 25 players have ever won the award. This already puts Sean Couturier into exclusive company and should be cause for celebration amongst Flyers fans. However, looking at the quality of the company that he is joining led me to question what link there is (if any) between the Selke Trophy and the Stanley Cup. Is there a correlation between the league’s ‘best defensive forward’ and team championships? What does Couturier winning the Selke really mean in terms of the Flyers ending their 45-year championship drought? Does the Selke give any indication that the Philadelphia Flyers may be closer in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup that has eluded them since 1975?
Let’s take a closer look at the Selke Trophy and if this individual trophy relates to overall team success and a Stanley Cup Championship.
By the Numbers
As stated earlier, discounting Couturier’s win this year and the lost season of 2004-2005 there have been 40 seasons that the Selke Trophy has been awarded. Of those 40 winners, 33 have won the Stanley Cup as players. That is a clip of 82.5% which is a pretty strong indicator that the Selke and the Stanley Cup share overlap in terms of success criteria. The only Selke winners that were not fortunate enough to have won the Stanley Cup as a player are Steve Kasper, Dave Poulin, Craig Ramsay, Rick Meagher, Dirk Graham, Michael Peca, and Ryan Kesler.
25 different players have won the Selke and of those 25, 18 of them won the Stanley Cup as a player. The real exception from the list of winners here is former Flyers Head Coach Craig Ramsay who never won the Stanley Cup as a player, but did manage to win one as an Assistant Coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. That means that players who win the Selke end up winning the Stanley Cup at some point in their playing career 72% of the time.
Of the 18 players that won the Selke Trophy as a player, 15 won the Stanley Cup with the same team that they won the Selke Trophy. The three players that managed to win the Stanley Cup and the Selke with different teams were Doug Jarvis, Troy Murray, and Doug Gilmour. Jarvis won 4 Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens from 1976-79 but won the Selke with the Washington Capitals in 1984. Troy Murray won the Selke with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1986 but won the Stanley Cup in 1996 with the Colorado Avalanche. Doug Gilmour won the Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989 before winning the Selke with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 1992-93 season.
That means that winners of the Selke Trophy win the Stanley Cup 83.3% of the time with the same team. That number is high and definitely suggests a strong link between the two trophies, however that number has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. After all, the number of repeat winners of the Selke will skew the numbers especially considering that most repeat winners have also won the Stanley Cup. Of the 9 players that have won the Selke Trophy more than once, only 1 (Michael Peca) has never won the Stanley Cup. So, when Bob Gainey and Patrice Bergeron win the Selke four times each and have won the Stanley Cup it will definitely shift the numbers into the narrative more favorably. So take those numbers with caution.
But what about players that have only won one Selke Trophy? After all, this season is the first year that Sean Couturier has won the award despite Flyers fans screaming for him to be honored for years. There have been 16 players that have won the Selke Trophy on only one occasion. Of those 16 players, 10 of them have won the Stanley Cup as players with 7 of them winning both with the same team. That means there is a 62.5% chance of a one-time Selke winner winning the Stanley Cup, but only 43.75% of them do it with the same team. These numbers seem more reliable and really apply to the situation that the Philadelphia Flyers find themselves in heading into the offseason.
So, what does the history of the winners of the Selke Trophy mean for a team like the Flyers who are looking to end a long championship drought? Optimism is the key word. While a Stanley Cup Championship parade happening along Broad Street is by no means guaranteed, there is a pretty strong link between players that are recognized as the top defensive forward in the game and winning the Stanley Cup. Players that can excel at both ends of the ice at that high of a level is a rare and valuable commodity in the NHL. While these types of players rarely receive the acclaim that they deserve, they are vital cogs in any championship machine.
That being said, there are concerns with the flat salary cap that the Flyers are going to have to address in the next few years. Chuck Fletcher is going to have to get creative in order to ensure that the young core of this team is intact for the entirety of their Stanley Cup window. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny have already been signed to six-year deals prior to the start of this past season. Up next, will be Carter Hart and Travis Sanheim at the conclusion of next season. Both players will get raises; and in the case of Carter Hart a substantial raise with a substantial term being likely.
Following that, Sean Couturier will need a new contract after the 2021-22 season and he will be looking to cash in after signing a team friendly six-year deal worth $4.33 million annually back in 2016. With the Selke win, the chance of Couturier taking some sort of discount to remain in Philadelphia is even less likely than it already was as teams will be looking to attract an impact player with his skill set via free agency. He will demand and command a substantial pay bump to the point where he will be the Flyers highest paid player.
And why shouldn’t he cash in? He has been the Bobby Clarke Trophy winner as the Flyers Most Valuable Player for two consecutive years and looks to be in the conversation for the remainder of his current deal. Now with a Selke Trophy to his credit after years of great defensive play, Couturier’s stock is on the rise. The challenge for GM Chuck Fletcher will be to find the room to keep him in Philadelphia. After all, not every Selke winner wins the Stanley Cup with the same team. Plus the Flyers have to fancy that their chances at team success are higher with Couturier rather than without him.
What course of action do the Flyers take going forward? There is a very realistic possibility that the Flyers make no changes this offseason to allow the experience of this playoffs to sink in with the younger members of the team. These younger players will continue to grow and improve with the Flyers in the coming seasons, plus there is a bevy of prospects and young talent that will be pushing for a spot on the roster. The problem with that though is that established veterans like Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek will be declining as those young players make their ascent. It is incumbent on both the players and the Flyers to ensure that the veterans on this team remain impactful to have their championship window open for as long as possible.
Alternatively, the lack of offense from the top-six forwards was a key factor in the Flyers playoff struggles. While there will be the temptation to stay the course and let the youngsters develop, there may be opportunities for this management team to make a bold trade or sign an impact player via free agency. Signing a player from outside the organization via free agency will be a difficult task due to the constraints of a flat salary cap and will necessitate at least one pre-emptive trade to clear some space and create wiggle room. The Flyers may clear room but there is no guarantee that free agents will choose to sign in Philadelphia; although the likelihood increases as most teams and players are trying to negotiate the limited landscape that is imposed due to the flat salary cap.
This leaves us with the trade scenario. Rumors have been prevalent that Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, or Johnny Gaudreau may be moved in order for Winnipeg and Calgary respectively to fill holes on their roster. Laine in particular is an intriguing piece as he has the goal scoring prowess that is missing from this roster. Acquiring Laine automatically makes the powerplay more dangerous (another issue that led to the Flyers playoff demise) and the 22-year old’s 28 goals this season would have led the Flyers. He was scoring at a 34-goal pace had the season not been interrupted, and his career low is 30 goals in a full season.
That offence comes at a price.
In a league where goals and goal scorers are in demand, the Jets will be looking for quite the haul in exchange for the scoring right winger. The Flyers do have the pieces in order to make such a deal happen (especially since the Jets greatest need is on defense), but Chuck Fletcher has to calculate how close the Flyers are to being legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Based on the correlation between the Selke Trophy and winning the Stanley Cup, Sean Couturier should not be one of the pieces considered for a potential trade. Rather, other players would ideally be considered for any such possible trade in order to get a player like Couturier the best goal scoring winger that he has ever played with. Laine would be an excellent complementary piece to add to the Flyers Stanley Cup aspirations. He could be counted on to supply offense while Couturier continued to be a force all over the ice especially looking after the defensive aspects of the game.
The possibility is tantalizing.
For now, Chuck Fletcher has an interesting and important offseason ahead of him. He can make his decision knowing that he has a Selke winner on his roster and that makes the Flyers a team that should be on the cusp of playoff success so long as the young players on this roster continue to improve and the right players are brought in to maximize their potential.
Congratulations to Sean Couturier on winning the Selke Trophy for the 2019-20 season. Enjoy this Selke victory Flyers fans! The stats indicate that playoff success is much more likely in the future.
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photo credit: nhl.com