Tampa Bay Lightning rookie forward Anthony Cirelli deserves votes for the NHL’s Selke Trophy. Yes, I’m serious.
Since that might seem a little spicy, let’s take a step back. This article was originally titled, “Anthony Cirelli is becoming one of the most dangerous forwards in the NHL on the penalty kill.” But as I was writing, I realized I hadn’t gone far enough. His defensive prowess extends beyond the penalty kill to even strength making him one of the best defensive forwards in the league this season.
I’ll forgive you if you don’t believe me. His numbers were even better than I expected before I started digging, and I pay attention to this kind of stuff. But if you don’t believe me by the end of this article, I won’t forgive you. Because what follows is solid evidence that Cirelli belongs in the Selke conversation.
Let’s start where I started: on the penalty kill. Normally, if we’re thinking about the Selke, we’d start at even strength and then move to the penalty kill, but we’ll work in reverse here because that’s how I arrived at the idea.
Cirelli has been a shorthanded menace all season. He’s tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with four. Mark Jankowski and Michael Grabner share that lead. Cirelli and Alex Killorn have formed a dynamic forward duo on the Lightning’s top shorthanded unit frequently gaining the offensive zone and wreaking havoc.
To try to measure this and test whether Cirelli looks as good on paper in this regard as he does to the eye, we can use some number from Evolving Hockey. First, the plot below shows all forwards with at least 100 shorthanded minutes so far this season and it compares each player’s impact on their team’s expected goal differential to their individual expected goal generation using regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM).
In simpler terms, the horizontal axis shows if the player is making the team’s penalty kill better and the vertical axis shows if the player is creating dangerous chances for himself despite being shorthanded.
Cirelli places exactly where you’d expect him to be based on how he looks to the eye. The Bolts penalty kill is better with him on the ice and he creates chances at an alarming rate considering the team is down a player. So right here, we already have evidence that Cirelli is one of the best penalty-killing forwards in the NHL this season.
To get more context, the next chart plots all player seasons using the same measures going back to 2007-2008. Cirelli’s current season is the large blue dot.
Even in the larger context of thirteen seasons, Cirelli shows as having an excellent year. Considering that he’s still a rookie, penalty killing seems to be an exceptional skill for him. If he can continue to improve over the next few years, he could get into the conversation with the best shorthanded forwards of the last ten years or so.
This is about where the original analysis was supposed to end. I would have written some summary words, put a bow on it, and called it a night. But as I was working through this, I realized that if he’s this good shorthanded, he’s probably pretty good defensively in general. And I should probably check on that. So I did.
The Bigger Picture
For a more complete look at his defensive game, the next chart utilizes Evolving Hockey’s RAPMs again but this time it shows players’ defensive impact on expected goals while shorthanded and at even strength.
Cirelli’s placement here is impressive. Keep in mind that negative numbers are good in this context so the bottom left quadrant is the best place to be. He has exceptional defensive impacts both shorthanded and at even strength this season. Based on this chart, he deserves to be in the Selke conversation. Very few players stand out defensively the way he does and if the point of the Selke is to reward defensive play, he has to be included.
But the challenge with trophies is coming up with an actual ranking. Eyeballing that chart and coming up with at top five isn’t a bad way to go but we can do better. Because both axes on that plot show expected goal RAPMs, we can combine them into one number and use that to rank players.
The next chart shows the top 30 forwards in total impact on expected goals against including both even strength and shorthanded play.
Selecting the top five here and filing a ballot would be defensible. And if we did that, Cirelli would get a fifth place vote. So already, he’s on the ballot. But I have some concerns with this group.
First, we have a couple players in the top five who don’t play on the penalty kill. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Alex Kerfoot are both young players showing good defensive impacts at even strength but not being asked by their coaches to kill penalties. More concerning to me are players like Ryan O’Reilly and Antoine Roussel who have bad penalty killing impacts.
The next chart filters out any players who either don’t play on the penalty kill or who don’t make a positive impact while shorthanded.
Trophies are subjective but in terms of my conception of the Selke, this starts to look like a good framework. I can see an argument for including players like Kotkaniemi and Kerfoot. They can’t force their coaches to give them shorthanded minutes. But I find it hard to include players who don’t play the most difficult defensive minutes in the discussion for a defensive award.
In this view, Cirelli bumps up to third in a top five with Marcus Foligno, Blake Comeau, Mark Stone, and Jayden Schwartz. Perennial Selke contender Patrice Bergeron shows in 15th.
This approach highlights something else that should be interesting to Lightning fans. Killorn and Yanni Gourde also grade very well placing 8th and 6th respectively. If the Lightning find themselves needing a shutdown line in the playoffs, going to Cirelli, Killorn, and Gourde could be a secret weapon.
Those three played together much of last year so they have chemistry. They only separated because Gourde’s scoring warranted a move into the top six. But in situational play in the postseason, that line could return when the coaches need to stifle the opposition’s offense.
So vote for Cirelli
If we’re taking a quantitative approach, Anthony Cirelli has to be in the conversation for the Selke. I’m not going to say he should be on every ballot. But he should be on some. He’s been excellent at even strength. He’s been excellent killing penalties. Not just stifling the other team but also creating offense for himself.
Too often, the Selke goes to great players who don’t quite score enough to be in the Hart conversation. That’s understandable to a certain extent because the NHL hasn’t offered any meaningful statistics for evaluating defensive play.
But we have better tools now. And when we use those tools, we can do a better job of isolating defensive impact. The results aren’t always what we’d expect but that’s because defense is tough to evaluate and our eyes lie to us buy focusing on what is happening. But defense isn’t about what is happening. It’s about what isn’t happening.
And Anthony Cirelli keeps things from happening for the other team. Specifically, shots and goals. That’s why he grades so well in these metrics. And that’s why he deserves to be on Selke ballots.