Does an East Coast bias exist? Most West Coast hockey fans would argue it does and many times their proof point has been how often players for the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings have been overlooked when NHL Awards time comes around. During the past couple of seasons, the pendulum has started to swing, with overdue recognition trickling in for players like defenseman, Drew Doughty, goaltender Jonathan Quick and most notably, one of the better two-way centermen in the NHL, Slovenian-born, Anze Kopitar. This week, Kopitar was recognized with not one – but two – award nominations from the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association: the Selke and Lady Byng.
Along with the Boston Bruins‘ Patrice Bergeron and the Chicago Blackhawks‘ Jonathan Toews, Kopitar was named a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Memorial Trophy for the second year in a row. The Selke is awarded annually to “the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.” Bergeron took home the trophy last year.
Kopitar was also named a finalist – along with Jiri Hudler of the Calgary Flames and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings – for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, given annually to the player judged “to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”
Is this Kopitar’s year to win an award? If so, it’s unlikely the Selke. While the nominees are named for their regular season play, it is notable that two of the candidates for the Selke- Bergeron and Kopitar – are missing from this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Add to that the fact that the 2014-2015 season wasn’t Kopitar’s best – he’s the only Selke candidate to have ended the season with a minus rating – and the odds are already against a player who is, by all accounts, one of the most defensibly responsible forwards in the NHL. There’s also that East Coast bias and the statistics show, it truly exists. Only one player playing for a team in the Pacific or Mountain time zone has ever won the Selke and that was Ryan Kesler for the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. Bergeron is a two-time winner, having picked up the Selke in both 2012 and 2014, and Toews won for the Blackhawks in 2013 – the year they beat the LA Kings in the Western Conference Final and went on to win the Cup.
Though Kopitar lead the Kings in points for the eighth consecutive regular season, he potted only 16 goals. That said, Kings fans and anyone who watches Kopitar know that his strengths include his responsibility on the ice and his unselfish play: he leads in all situations, never heads for the bench without ensuring that the puck is out of harm’s way, plays hard on the boards and generally wins those battles and is one of the most adept passers on the team, setting up plays time and again for the natural goal-scorers he’s frequently paired with like Marion Gaborik and Jeff Carter. Kopitar is an all-around player – the exact kind of player the Selke is designed to recognize. Despite all of this, the Selke has so far eluded him and that’s unlikely to change this time around.
The Lady Byng, on the other hand, may be within Kopitar’s reach. This is his first Byng nomination, but no one who has watched Kopitar should be surprised that he’s a contender. As LA Kings Insider, Jon Rosen reported, Kopitar was sent to the box for a mere five penalties – all minor – adding up to a career-low of 10 penalty minutes this season, well below his average. And looking at the bias factor, the Lady Byng has been kinder to West Coast teams. Three Los Angeles Kings have previously been awarded the Trophy including Marcel Dionne, Butch Goring and three-time trophy winner, Wayne Gretzky.
The real test of the East Coast bias will likely come when the nominations for the Norris Trophy are announced. Kings fans, writers who cover the team and hockey pundits who have had a chance to watch Drew Doughty in action have long felt that Doughty is deserving of the Norris and that this could be his year. With two cups and two Gold medals for Canada to his name, and last season’s NHL leader in ice time per game, Doughty should certainly be a finalist, but it remains to be seen whether voters will go so far as to hand him the trophy. In the meantime, Kings fans should take heart that top players like Kopitar and Doughty are finally being recognized among the elite players in the NHL.