Why is it so hard for a defenseman to win the Lady Byng?on July 16, 2020 at 7:38 pm

In 1949, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Bill Quackenbush won the Lady Byng Trophy – and all he had to do was take zero penalties that season. Quackenbush actually went 131 games before his next minor – a tripping call on Jan. 26, 1950 – but he only won the Byng that single time.

While the Byng is often derided in hockey circles, we still love to debate about the winners and the fact is, defensemen have been discriminated against in the category forever. Since Quackenbush’s win in 1949, only Red Kelly (twice) and Brian Campbell have won the Byng as blueliners. Kelly last won it in 1954, followed by Campbell in 2012 – a span of 58 years.

This is all very relevant today because the finalists for the Lady Byng have come out and Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is not one of them.

Slavin has become one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL, playing more than 23 minutes per night while facing top-notch competition. He accrued just 10 PIM this season and like Quackenbush, still threw his body around – he just did it in a legal fashion. Slavin was credited with 43 hits in 68 games and had 81 takeaways, so you can’t say he was simply hanging back and playing passive hockey.

But for whatever reason, not enough of my fellow media voters had him on their ballots to crack the final top three (anecdotally, quite a few of us did, myself included). Heck, Slavin may end up with more Norris votes than Byng nods at the end of the day, which also speaks to how good he has been on the back end.

Why more defensemen don’t get recognized for their gentlemanly play is a mystery. You could argue that Slavin’s profile isn’t as high because he plays in Carolina, but Tomas Kaberle never won a Lady Byng and he spent his best NHL years in Toronto. A current Maple Leafs defenseman, Morgan Rielly, did come fourth in voting last season – but still lost out to three centers in O’Reilly, Sean Monahan and Aleksander Barkov (the eventual winner).

The three finalists this season are Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly and Auston Matthews – all high-powered centers who stayed out of the box. Of course, it’s hard to take a penalty when you always have the puck, but I digress…because the name that is already raising flags is Matthews.

While it is true that Matthews racked up 80 points against just eight PIM this season, he also made headlines in the off-season when he and a group of buddies were accused of harassing a female security guard late at night in Arizona.

Now, the Lady Byng is awarded to the player who “combines sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct and ability,” according to the NHL. Should off-ice behavior be a factor in voting? It’s worth noting that the actual Lady Byng originally donated the trophy to the NHL because she was disgusted with the nasty, dirty play of Montreal Canadiens future Hall of Famer Sprague Cleghorn (she preferred Ottawa’s Frank Nighbor). Along with wielding his stick as a weapon regularly on the ice, Cleghorn was also once arrested for beating his wife with a crutch – but whether Cleghorn’s off-ice cruelty factored into the creation of the trophy is harder to discern.

Either way, it’s hard to ignore off-ice behavior for this particular award – or at least, I would have thought that was the case until the finalists were announced. Most likely, a lot of voters searched for the highest-scoring players with the lowest amount of penalties and called it a day. I assume a lot more effort went into their Hart and Calder decisions.

Perhaps next year Slavin will be able to garner enough votes to become the next blueliner to win the Byng. But given how high the bar seems to be for a defenseman, he may have to pull off a Quackenbush and go the whole year without a penalty.

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