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How the Season is Going for New Jersey Devils Defenseman P.K. Subban

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This post is a deep dive into what is a fairly simple question: How is the season going for New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban? The answer is not immediately apparent but it is has not been bad at all and not disappointing like Taylor Hall’s.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils
It’s been a season for P.K. Subban in New Jersey.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

On June 22, 2019, the New Jersey Devils traded a relatively modest package of assets to Nashville for star defenseman P.K. Subban. I was very happy with the trade. Many of you were happy with the trade. The Devils acquired a celebrity, a big-minutes right-sided defenseman, a big contract, and a significant producer on both the power play and in general. This, like with the 2019-20 season, was going to be exciting. The 2019-20 season for the team, well, disappointment would be an understatement. How has Subban performed for the Devils season? I intend to explore this question in this post. The short answer: It depends on what you value but at least he has not been surprisingly bad like Taylor Hall.

A comparison of Hall and Subban is not a fully fair one. They play different positions. They serve different roles. One is seeking to get a massive contract and the other is at the peak of their current contract with a base salary of $10 million for this season. However, they are the stars of the team and one of the many issues of the Devils’ season is that their stars have not been very star-like. They have that overall issue in common. The details still differ. Hall may have points but when he steps on the ice, the Devils have been wrecked in 5-on-5 and the top power play unit runs the gamut from occasionally effective to making fans wish penalties can be declined in the NHL. That is even more apparent since the man cannot seemingly buy a goal in recent games. Subban is the inverse of Hall in that his production issues are stark whereas the on-ice play, at least at a macro level, has positives.

Production - The Shocking Lack of It

Points alone are not a good way to analyze a player and their contributions. However, they are literal contributions to the team and they are part of the discussion for such an analysis. Subban does not have a lot of them. After nineteen games of the season, Subban has two goals - an empty netter and a deflection by the net - and three assists. He has no points at all on the power play. This is rather shocking given Subban’s career so far. According to his season stats at NHL.com, Subban has put up at least 10 power play points and 30 points in every season he has played in except for his two-game cameo in 2009-10. Even in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and in seasons where he missed more than ten games, Subban consistently exceeded thirty points and ten power play points. As of right now, Subban is on pace for just over 21 points with a goose egg on the man advantage. This is not so much a decline, but a drop off a cliff.

It is not as if Subban has suddenly become shy on the puck. Subban may fake his shot too much, but he has fired 49 shots on net. According to the NHL’s website, only Hall (70) and Wayne Simmonds (51) have shot the puck more than Subban among all Devils. He has eleven shots on the power play per Natural Stat Trick - just as many as The Big Deal and only behind four other Devils. It is true that we should not expect most of his shots to become goals. As with most defensemen, his shots are typically 40 to 60 feet away from the net. Without a screen or a deflection, NHL goalies will typically stop those shots from a distance. To that end, part of his lack of scoring is by the nature of his position. Even knowing that, it is fair to state that he has been unfortunate since his 4.1% shooting is the lowest in his career. It does not help that when he does make great passes to either spring a forward ahead of the opposition or change the point of attack in the offensive zone, those plays are not necessarily being finished. That hurts the team in the game as well as denying Subban a potential assist.

Further, his demotion to the second power play unit may really keep him from getting a point total close to his past. Subban was often running the main power play units in Montreal and Nashville. That only lasted for a few games with New Jersey. As the power play started off the season with a run of futility - like the team as a whole - Subban was moved to be the defenseman on the second unit and then moved to play left wing similar to Kyle Palmieri on the main unit. I can respect a decision to have Subban be closer to the net for shots. Since the second unit does not play nearly as much as the first unit and it is not a guarantee Subban would get an opportunity to shoot and it is not a guarantee Subban will not wind up, not fire, and then wind up to fire, Subban is not having the opportunities to create a goal or score one on the power play. As power play points represented a significant fraction of his overall point totals season-by-season in his career, the lack of success hurts Subban’s overall production in a significant way.

By the way, who would have guessed back in September that P.K. Subban would be used as a winger on the second power play unit, Damon Severson would be the back defenseman on that unit, Sami Vatanen would run the first power play unit, and Will Butcher would not be a mainstay on either unit? I understand plans do not last once they hit the ice but this is stunning on paper.

Going back to Subban, for a $10 million player with his past, it is fair to expect Subban to be a producer. He has not been one. Unless the coaching staff returns him to the top power play unit and the man has his shots yield something, Subban’s production will remain disappointingly low. I can understand it if that is a reason why you may be disappointed in his season so far.

The On-Ice Play is Positive

Production is only part of what P.K. Subban can bring to the proverbial table. Subban is a defenseman and his primary role is more than just firing shots at long distances. His job is to help cover players in his own zone, win pucks and make good zone exits, support the play in transition, and keep the attack going by either being an option from the point, deciding what to do with the puck, and even keeping the puck in play. There are a lot of little things that can be missed because they are not obvious and not tracked by the scorer. A player who succeeds more often than not at them does credit through that by whether they help their team is out-performing their opposition - which is counted and can be determined through on-ice rate stats. This is where Subban has been a positive factor for the Devils.

After 19 games into the season, the Devils have a team Corsi For% of 46.52% as per Natural Stat Trick. This means that in 5-on-5 situations, the Devils have only taken about 46.5% of all shooting attempts. That is quite low and the fourth lowest in the NHL prior to Sunday’s games. Only one defenseman on the Devils has an on-ice rate over 50% in Corsi right now according to Natural Stat Trick. That means when this defenseman is on the ice, the Devils have actually taken more shooting attempts than they allow. That defenseman is P.K. Subban at 50.16%.

It gets better when you look a little more closely at the other 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick for Devils defensemen. When Subban is on the ice, the Devils have also taken over 54 shooting attempts per 60 minutes; no Devils defenseman has an on-ice rate above 50. When Subban is on the ice, the Devils have a Shots For% of 51.58% with the team taking shots at a rate of 31.8 shots per 60 minutes. Only Sami Vatanen has a higher Shots For% and only Connor Carrick has an on-ice shooting rate by the Devils above 30 (and Subban is ahead of Carrick). Given that Subban’s most common forward teammates include Hall, Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, The Big Deal, Simmonds, and Pavel Zacha, that is a big benefit to them. The expected goals model is similar to Corsi in its use. How attempts are taken for and against the team are valued by historical data and the expected goals rate gives an indication about how well things are going when that player is on the ice. Subban’s expected Goals For percentage is 51.76% as per Natural Stat Trick. While this is behind Andy Greene and Damon Severson, it is still positive. It is another sign that generally good things have happened when Subban took a shift for New Jersey this season.

It is not all perfect. Unfortunately for the Devils, Subban has a on-ice Scoring Chance For% and a High Danger Scoring Chance For% below 50% each: 47.2% and 48.6%, respectively. These rate more in the middle among the Devils’ defensemen. As a small bit of mitigation, when Subban is on the ice, the Devils’ scoring chance for rate is above 25 - no other defenseman can claim that. You would want to see the chance against rate to be much lower, but it at least speaks to I think the thing about Subban that people would have an issue with. I will go over that later. Even so, while chances have not been kind when Subban is out there, the other rate stats indicate that when Subban steps on the ice, the Devils are creating more offense and more than their collective opposition.

To confirm this, here is a quick look at his relative on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick. When Subban steps on the ice in 5-on-5 this season, the Devils see an increase in Corsi For% by a 6% - which is huge. The team’s Shots For% increases by just under 5.1% - another big gain. The team’s expected goals for percentage also increases by 3.4%. The only relative rate stat that goes in a negative direction when Subban steps on the ice is the high-danger chance for percentage at just below -3.6%. That is it. Even the overall scoring chance for percentage is not negative; it remains even when Subban takes a shift. The others are all excellent and points to how the Devils are tilting the ice in their direction more often than not when Subban is out there.

He may not have the production, but Subban has helping the offense attack in 5-on-5 play. This is his direct impact on how the team has played. Given that the Devils as a team overall have not been good in 5-on-5 play, this is a clear positive impact by Subban’s play. This is the direct impact. This is also significant because Subban has played a lot in this situation for the Devils. Subban currently leads the Devils defensemen - and the skaters - in 5-on-5 ice time per game with 17:51 per Natural Stat Trick. At NHL.com, Subban leads the team in overall average ice time per game at 23:53, well ahead of both Vatanen and Severson. This makes his on-ice rate stats and his relative rate stats even more valuable. This is not a case of a third-pairing defenseman having some good metrics that may warrant more ice time. This is a case that when the team’s #1 defenseman takes a shift, the Devils are better off overall. It may not easily seen. It will not be in highlight clips. But it is valuable and it shows Subban’s direct impact on the Devils.

While the power play part of the special teams has not gone well for Subban or the Devils as a whole, the penalty kill has also been a brighter spot for Subban. He is not on the primary penalty killing unit but maybe he should be? The team’s against rates on the kill when Subban is out there has been better than everyone else’s per Natural Stat Trick. Sure, the rates are still high but that is to be expected for any shorthanded shift. Perhaps he should join Greene on the primary unit? This is another positive development in Subban’s play this season - something I did not expect during the offseason based on his last season in Nashville.

Subban’s play also has resulted in an indirect positive for the Devils. Last week, I wrote about how the start of the season was surprisingly good for Andy Greene. Greene has been the teams top defenseman by ice time for many seasons. Over the past two, Greene’s on-ice stats have severely declined. It was at a point where it seemed like madness that he would keep receiving so many shifts in games. With the acquisition of Subban, the Devils have been able to cut back on Greene’s ice time and ease up some of his match-ups. Greene is now averaging fewer than 20 minutes overall and playing less than 16 5-on-5 minutes per game for the first time in a long time. This reduction has contributed to Greene being pinned back less - which is another benefit in a Devils season that needs more of them. This reduction would not be possible without P.K. Subban and the coaches deciding to make Subban the minutes leader in 5-on-5 play and all situations.

But He Made This Mistake or Macro vs. Micro

P.K. Subban may not have the desired amount of production that you would want to see from him, but he has been quite good in the run of play for a Devils team that has not been overall. He is at least one of the Devils’ better defenseman and is at least in the conversation of whether he is their best one this season.

I am also confident that a number of you reading this are already protesting this. After all, look the errors he makes. He pinched in this one time and it cost the team. He dove to break up a pass in a 2-on-1, missed, and it cost the team. He made a terrible clearance and it cost the team. And so forth. How can anyone with these kinds of errors be a good player, much less a good defenseman? Especially since he is not scoring all that much himself?

The errors that Subban made are real. No one is questioning that. They are specific, in-game examples that are especially memorable if it costs the team. They are seen in a micro view. However, every player in any sport in any position makes errors. Even legendary defensemen in New Jersey history like Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer have faltered and had bad nights. It even cost the team sometime. Judging a player by their errors is no different than looking at someone who scored over 20 goals one season and thinking they are a good offensive player. You may be right sometimes and other times you have Miles Wood.

A more complete picture is needed to show whether a player is doing well in part of or in a whole season. Scoring plays are still fairly rare occurrences compared to attempts, shots, and scoring chances. Looking at the latter will give more of an idea of what happens on the ice when the player is there. All of those won pucks, successful passes, and good decisions tend to lead to attempts, shots, and even chances for the team. That is captured in on-ice rate stats as a whole and why they are valuable. They utilize both what happens for the team as well what happens against them. They show whether the team is out-performing their opposition in a given category and in a given situation. They show a player’s impact beyond the scoresheet. They better reflect of someone who is good at what they are doing and someone who is not. This is a macro-level viewpoint. Since the initial question was asking how Subban’s season has been going, the macro-level view is going to provide a more accurate answer than just focusing on specific events that are seen in a micro-view.

Consider this: Yes, Subban has made some notable errors on the ice in this season. So has Matt Tennyson. We can probably spend a good chunk of time reviewing their individual failings at a micro-level. Does this mean they are doing about the same? Absolutely not. This would be easily demonstrated with a macro-level view would focus on their respective on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5 hockey (Subban is on special teams and Tennyson is not, so 5-on-5 is the only common situation) over the whole season. It is there where it is clearly apparent who has been doing well and who has not. Tennyson’s on-ice CF% is the lowest among Devils defensemen at just over 42% and he is just below Will Butcher for the lowest xGF% at 42.9% per Natural Stat Trick. When Tennyson is on the ice, the opposition is forcing him and his teammates to play defense more often than not. He has been caved in. This has not been the case over the whole season for Subban. It is not even close. Again, at a micro level, you can focus on specific moments in a specific game. To answer who’s better or how their season is going, you need a larger view and this is why the on-ice rate stats, relative rate stats, and other values like production are more appropriate methods.

It is true that Subban’s style of play involves risks. Subban can and does pinch aggressively. Subban can and occasionally goes deeper in the offensive zone and can handle the puck with confidence. Subban can and does take on forecheckers and sometimes beat them. Subban can and does take chances like diving to block a possible pass in a 2-on-1 situation. Subban can and does try for long stretch passes to spring his teammates and they do connect sometimes. Has these moments gone awry for Subban and the Devils by extension? Yes. This is reminsicent of Damon Severson and, to a degree, Marek Zidlicky. However, unlike Zidlicky and Severson, Subban can be and has been more judicious about his pinches and his aggression on the puck. Unlike Zidlicky and even Severson, Subban is lot more physical when the situation on defense calls for it. He is more responsible in his own end than I think people give him credit for. Zidlicky, for example, had plenty of shifts where he looked like he didn’t want to play any defense. Subban does not take shifts off.

What’s more is that those risks Subban sometimes take are part of the skillset that has led the Devils to generate more attempts and shots than their opposition and more than when other defensemen are on the ice. Unfortunately because his teammates do not always finish the plays often (the team’s shooting percentage is 6.1% when Subban is on the ice in 5-on-5) and the goalies behind him have not made a lot of saves (on-ice save percentage of 89.94% in 5-on-5, which is one of the better ones among the defensemen), it has not yielded a lot of results. So it may be easy to forget that there has been reward found from Subban’s play on the ice. It is just that the rewards are not Devils goals. Again, this is where the on-ice rate stats really help because they do show what they are: more attempts, more shots, a higher expected goal rate, and all better than the oppoisition. This is very positive for a Devils team that has languished as a whole in those categories in this season so far.

I think his style of play contributes to the criticism. And those mistakes being costly have been memorable, moreso with Subban’s lack of production and the team’s lack of production when Subban is on the ice. However, the on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5 represent a player who has been doing their job fairly well. Given that is better

Concluding Thoughts & Your Take

This is not to say that Subban cannot make improvements. Subban is second on the team in PIM with 22 per NHL.com. While some of those penalties can be defended as necessary, I would like to see to see him go to the box less often. He should be killing penalties not giving the team penalties to kill. Subban should really fake the shot a lot less too. Especially on the power play, the fake has resulted in the opposition skater and especially the goalie to get in a better position for the shot to come. Getting stuffed or hitting the logo on the goalie’s chest will not score goals either. Subban’s shot is great, he should just let it ride. Could Subban benefit from playing a simpler, more conservative style on defense? Perhaps, but limiting his talents seems like a bad idea in the long run. It would really help if the coaches can sort out how to make the power play units more consistently effective and then give Subban a substantial role because if not doing so for Subban is like keeping a sports car on cement blocks in a garage. The power play is where Subban has and can excel in; make it happen, coaches.

Still, Subban’s season has been a kind of inverse of Hall’s. While Hall has production and can point to visible positive plays, Subban does not given his five points for the season and zero power play points despite being third on the team in total shots. What has made Hall’s play so underwhelming is that his on-ice rate stats have been poor in 5-on-5. You expect the team’s top forward to at least do decently in the most common situation in hockey. Subban has shined relative to the other defensemen with his 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats. No, they are not dominant numbers on their own but he is above or close to being above the other defenseman on the team. More importantly, they mean that when Subban takes to the ice, the team is attacking more and generating more than their opposition in all categories except for scoring chances and high-danger chances. The Devils as a whole have been poor in those categories; so it is a positive that the #1 defenseman on the team is having this impact. As well as the fact since Subban is the #1 defenseman, Greene is not getting buried like he did in recent seasons - which is another plus. As is Subban’s performances on a secondary penalty killing unit. These are not glaringly obvious positives but they are real and the Devils really do need more like it from their players (e.g. Will Butcher).

I will agree that Subban is not playing like a $10 million player. Out of the 27 players making at least $10 million in the NHL this season, he is among the least worthy (not the worst though, I’m looking at you, Bobrovsky) of the eight-figure salary. That level of money has higher expectations than being “OK.” However, it is not a binary situation whether he is worth it or not. Subban, again, is one of the better defenseman on the Devils right now. Subban really has not been that much of a disappointment outside of the scoresheet. Once his teammates cash in more often and the power play can be figured out, I really do think the points will come and it will then be easier to recognize that Subban has been pretty good so far. On a 2019-20 Devils roster with a multitude of problems, Subban really is not one of them. That is how it is going for P.K. Subban so far this season. It’s been pretty good all things considered.

That is how I see P.K. Subban’s season going so far this season. Now I want to know what you think. How do you think Subban’s season is going? Are you satisfied with what he has done so far? What do you want to see from him if you are not? What do you expect him to do in the remainder of this season? What can he and the coaches do to improve his season and, by extension, the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about P.K. Subban in the comments. Thank you for reading.