The Devils had the #1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and they made the biggest splash of the event. What’s strange is that those two things have nothing to do with one another.
After choosing Jack Hughes with the first overall selection day 1, the Devils preempted the 2nd day of drafting with a blockbuster trade of Jeremy Davies, Steve Santini, and two second-rounders including the their highest remaining one for 2019, in exchange for the Norris-winning defender, Pernell Karl (P.K.) Subban. The Devils were in desperate need of a defensive upgrade and in a year where the only marquee defender available via free agency (Erik Karlsson) was already signed, this is a huge move for New Jersey. But Subban is 30-years-old, carries a $9M cap hit, and is coming off the worst year of his career. There are a lot of threads to this story and I’ll attempt to do a fairly deep dive into some of the biggest components. I’ll come at this from 3 different angles, we’ll analyze P.K. as a player in a vacuum, then look at the impact on the Devils roster now and moving forward, and finally at P.K. the man.
P.K. Subban, the Player
This is probably the most straightforward of the three topics to evaluate, and it is still a very complex assessment to make given his style, age, skill, and contract. We’ll start off with his overall style and his strengths/weaknesses, move on to his overall performance, and finally his value relative to his contract given his age.
P.K. is first and foremost, an offensive defenceman. In particular he excels in individual metrics — events that occur with the puck on his stick. However, his overall impact is a little more complicated to assess. Here’s one example all in one image via Micah McCurdy’s HockeyViz.
As you can see, PK has been used as, and produced points at the rate of an undisputed top-pairing defender. That remained more or less true even this season. His shot rate impact is slightly positive here, and his goal rate impact is slightly negative. If you look at his relative metrics, he has alternated positive and negative impacts in scoring chances and goals, while been a steady positive impact on shot rate (Corsi). At the very least, this depicts a complicated picture. A likely contributing factor to this is the difference between his play on and off the puck.
As you can see, the notion that P.K. is “just a shot” is demonstrably untrue — that’s, in fact, the least impressive aspect of his even-strength A3Z metrics. He’s excellent at preventing the opponent from entering with possession, just as good at getting back out of the zone with possession, fair at entering the zone, and great at making shots for others once in the offensive zone. He is among the best defenders in the league at winning his matchup in transition at the defensive blueline.
But that’s only part of the game. As a defender, how you play off the puck and how much you prevent the high-danger chances from being made available is integral to your team’s success. Considering that, let’s look at a more complete analysis of his impact.
Overall On-Ice Impact
In order to get a good view of his impact at 5v5, the best metric to show that breakdown is RAPMs (essentially the same idea as Rel metrics, but controlling for more variables) via Evolving-Hockey.
Left to right, in each graph, the bars represent standard deviations above the mean in 3 offensive categories (goal impact, expected goal impact, and shot impact) and 2 defensive categories (expected goal against impact, and shot against impact). His offensive shot and expected goal rates are steadily positive, which is encouraging. Both of his defensive numbers have declined each of the last 2 years. This paints the picture of, at minimum, someone who excels remarkably consistently at improving his teams shot rate, which trickles down into expected goals for. His defensive game has fallen off a bit in recent years, but that might not be as concerning as one would expect — more on that later. The picture gets even fuzzier when we look at his impact isolate via hockeyviz.
On the left, redder means more shots, bluer means less, on the right magenta means more shots, green means less.
This map (using the past 2 seasons) depicts a defender who highly values point shots both at even strength and on the PP — to the detriment of his team’s offensive value. It also depicts someone with a negative defensive impact — that red section right in front of the net is bad news. If we look at the last two seasons this shows a player who’s overall impact on the danger of shots for and against his team is negative.
So with this all in mind, we should probably get an all-encompassing view now of Subban. Straightforward, how good is he right now, and how good is he likely to be through the 3 years of his contract?
Value Moving Forward
Aging curves area a real thing, and for defenders, they paint a grim picture of precipitous decline after the age of 24. However, the, in the previous iteration of WAR (by Dawson Sprigings), defensive performance was actually the skill that aged best. So there’s a reasonable case to be made that he’ll improve in that area, which, as you’ll recall, was the biggest problem in his on-ice impact. Between that, and improved luck in goal results, P.K. seems like a decently strong candidate for at least a little positive regression. For a more visual representation of this case, look at his GAR value over his career.
It’s pretty clear that last season was anomalous in his overall performance. According to projections from Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, P.K. is likely to return top pairing numbers and ~$6-6.5M of AAV value over the next 3 years. Which, while significantly undershooting his contract, is still significantly better than anything we have. This was the point of the trade. Subban is a top pairing defender that was available because he’s not worth his contract. This makes him a natural trade candidate to a team with cap space to kill, like us. This makes us demonstrably better for virtually no immediate cost, and not much long-term cost.
Impact on Devils
So we now have the picture of P.K. Subban as a player. He’s an elite point producer with ambiguous on-ice impact who excels in winning individual matchups and, in total, profiles as a top pairing defender, albeit a fairly significantly overpayed one.
Next, we look at what the overall impact is on the Devils. I’ll split this into three sections as well: 1) How does this acquistion impact the Devils on the ice this year, and 2) How does it impact us long term.
The immediate impact is difficult to ascertain through means I normally would — replacing one player’s GAR with another’s — is a bit problematic here due to the fact that Subban is coming off a down year. If you do a fairly rudimentary projection model, you’d get a projected GAR of around 5.19 for Subban this year (assuming a full 82-game season). This would make him a top-end second-pairing defender (not dissimilar from Dom’s projections above). Most people — including the writers at this blog AAtJ — seem to believe Severson was the Devils best defender last year. Over the full 82-games, Severson was a 2.4-GAR player. Subban projects to be twice as valuable as the guy we believe to have been the best defender last season. It’s worth noting that Butcher was actually the team leader in GAR among defenders with 9.8, but reasonable people can disagree on to what degree that reflects reality.
For a second opinion on the matter, Dom’s projection is that Hughes (1.7 GSVA) and Subban (1.6 GSVA) combined add 3.3 wins to the Devils which puts us “on the bubble.” This is what the team looks like on his projection.
The point is, Subban is likely to be the best or second best defender on this team and that not only helps the top of the roster, but it eases up the assignments on guys like Severson and/or Vatanen as well as eliminating the need for a guy like Connor Carrick or Steve Santini in the everyday roster. His impact is not likely to be fully explained by simple arithmetic. Having an all-situation defender like P.K. has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster due to his experience as an all-situation top pairing defender. But that’s just this year, how does this impact us moving forward?
Devils Beyond 2020
Subban is likely to retain top 4 value through his contract and so his contract wont be any more of an overburden than it already is. Does it handcuff us at all moving forward? Let’s look at the Devils cap situation for the near future. We’ve talked, here, about contracts for Zacha and Butcher as well as the Hall extension and Nico Extension. I’ve taken the liberty of filling in those predictions as well as some other preliminary guesses so we can see how strapped for space we will be. This is what the chart looks like — the blue row is how much cap space per player we have to get to 23.
As you can see, this year is obviously not a problem. Next year, if/when Hall, Nico, Bratt, and Blackwood get their extensions, we will have out 9 best forwards, 4 best defenders, and 2 best goalies under contract, leaving 8 spots open for $1.8M each. We could sign a $10M free agent and still have enough cap space to fill in the remaining spots with league-minimum guys.
This new situation also raises some new questions about the direction for the Devils with regards to trades. As I said before, the Devils still have plenty of cap space to kill, and they now have 3 serviceable right-handed defencemen — a valuable commodity. Does this spell the end for someone like Sami Vatanen? The Devils still have assets here and may not be done dealing. Here’s one example of a move I could see happening.
Toronto already has 2 excellent centers and may welcome the opportunity to reallocate funds from the 3C spot to the RD2 spot. Kadri may be available though a trade including either Severson of Vatanen (Vat obviously preferable from our perspective). The Leafs have only 2 right-handed defencemen and one (Nikita Zaitsev) has requested a trade. With the whole Marner situation going on, being able to solve the RD issue without needing to fork over additional cash is something Kyle Dubas may jump at. Kadri may seem redundant, but Zacha played some of his best hockey on Josefson’s wing his rookie year, some people think Hughes profiles more as an NHL winger, and you can never have too much cost-controlled talent down the middle. And with our blueline stabilized, we now have freedom to pursue a deal like that.
Subban gives us that comfort. To me, the hopeful top 4 in 2021-22 is Smith-Subban and Butcher-Severson. And after that, we get to decide on the next contracts for Smith and P.K. Thanks to this trade, the Devils core is stable, and the options surrounding it are flexible. We can still add, we can still trade, or we can just take care of everything in house.
Now, we’ve talked about how P.K. is as a hockey player, and what he means to the Devils roster and rebuild. The last thing to talk about, though, is the thing that makes P.K. truly special.
P.K. Subban, the Man
The narrative surrounding P.K. Subban is complex and really important to understand. He’s a truly unique personality who has been through an equally unique experience.
First, we have to set the table. The NHL is the old boy’s club of the sports world. It’s a league run almost entirely by old white men and is played by predominantly young white men. As of 2011, the NHL was 93% white, when, according to TIDES the NFL, NBA, and MLB were 31%, 18.9%, and 61% respectively. This homogenous demographic is reflected in the NHL’s fanbase which is 92% white — virtually identical to the distribution of NASCAR fans.
This old-fashioned aura is not limited to the demographics, it’s a pervasive attitude around the sport as a whole. Just this past season, the Hurricanes were reamed on national television by Don Cherry for being a “bunch of jerks” for having the audacity to express personality by celebrating after wins. This resistance to change in culture is manifested quite clearly in the narrative surrounding Subban. This is a man who has won the Norris trophy, and is a 3-time Norris nominee and 3-time All-Star. Yet he’s been traded twice, perceived as a problem in the lockerroom, been sent racist tweets, received racist taunts and pelted with trash, accused of “loving attention” by the game's brightest star, and labeled overrated by his peers.
This uncharitable image couldn’t be further from the truth. P.K. is one of the most involved players in the league, as well as one of its most personable and marketable. For an excellent summary, check out Amanda Stein’s piece on the stories about P.K..
To summarize, Subban has made his career about helping children in whatever community of which he is a part. By now, many of you probably already know that he donated $10 million to a Montreal children’s hospital — an act for which i genuinely don’t understand why he wasn’t awarded the Masterton. But he’s also taken to spreading holiday cheer to kids dressing up as a security guard, giving them a ride in the Subban Sleigh, or taking them caroling. And those might even seem frivolous in comparison to the comfort he has offered parents of children in long-term care and young PoC hockey players getting bullied due to the color of their skin. In a league trying to push #HockeyIsForEveryone, and joining a team that plays in Newark — a very diverse city — P.K. that should be a face of not only the franchise, but of the NHL.
And that’s a role Subban is well-suited to fill, because, in addition to being one of the best humans in the league, he’s also one of the most marketable.
Just a few hours after the trade, P.K. took to social media to express his excitement about being a Devil. Upon hearing he’d be coming to the area, Don La Greca immediately advocated to have him on as a weekly guest on the Michael Kay Show. He fielded questions in a substantive and engaging conference immediately after the trade. He advocated for signing Hall long-term, talked about how exciting NJ’s young talent is and how he aims to be a mentor and leader for them, and his appreciation for the Devils history (mentioning Brodeur, Dano, Niedermeyer, and Gionta in the process).
To top it all off, when asked about his personality fitting into this lockerroom, Shero said “there’s nothing wrong with personality” — “[in the NBA] everyone has personality” and that it’s “great for the NHL” too. This was just after calling him the most marketable player in the league — a notion P.K. immediately embodied by changing his profile pic on Twitter just before letting everyone know that he did, in fact, return Taylor Hall’s phone call. Here’s hoping that they can stay tight for years to come.
As Ray said, there would be no negative talk of Subban’s emotion and personality in a league like the NBA. P.K. has the misfortune of being a a personable, marketable, black superstar in an understated, deferential, white sport. I can only hope that we as a fanbase rise to the task and show him the love he’s earned in this league.
This is a blockbuster trade. That makes it pretty easy to launch past the necessary nuance of the move. I would be surprised if this trade didn’t make a marked improvement on the blueline, but there’s reason to wonder how positive his impact will be. I expect his point production to be good, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he, like many Devils defenders before him, was exposed and overworked by necessity. In Subban’s case it could feel like a top end 2nd pairing guy getting elite #1 defender minutes. He’s had two iffy defensive seasons in a row, and his offensive game is on the way down. Even so, he offers stability and credentials to a blueline barren of top-end talent without handcuffing us for the future.
And even though it’s not immediately clear to me how positive his impact will be on the hockey side of things, I’m personally thrilled about this acquisition. I plan on getting a Subban jersey, I hope he gets that radio spot, and I’m pumped to attend games to see the fire he brings into The Rock. Since the departure of Adam Henrique, the most active player in the Devils community is probably Blake Coleman, who — while awesome — is not a star. This is a team that, under the new ownership, has done a great job at making the in-game experience fun, but it still feels like there’s a hole in the connection the fans have to the players — a hole P.K. is uniquely suited in this sport to fill. He’s such an easy player to root for, and if he returns to form, he’s going to become a lot of people’s favorite Devil very quickly.
Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts on P.K. and the trade in the comments below!