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Can P.K. Subban Have A Bounce Back Season?

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Acquired before the 2019-20 season, P.K. Subban disappointed a lot of fans with his poor production. Can he bring his game back to where it needs to be?

San Jose Sharks v New Jersey Devils
Sometimes he scored. But he didn’t do very much else.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

P.K. Subban is entering his 11th full season in the NHL, and in his first nine years he scored 98 goals and 308 assists in 643 games, averaging out to about 13 goals and 39 assists per 82 games played. If he came anywhere near that in his first season for the New Jersey Devils, fans would have been very happy with him. After all, he was supposed to help bring the Taylor Hall-led team back to the playoffs after a disappointing 2018-19 season.

But he did not.

Now, P.K. Subban has two years left on his contract, with a cap hit of $9,000,000. He does not have a No-Trade Clause, but it is highly unlikely a team takes on his salary in these times. The only possible suitor for him would be the Seattle Kraken during their Expansion Draft, depending on if they need a bigger contract to help keep them above the cap floor. But that would be getting too far ahead of ourselves. Subban is not going anywhere, and if the Devils want to be better than a bottom-10 team, they’re going to need his help.

Signs of Declining Even Strength Defense

At the peak of his effectiveness with the Montreal Canadiens, P.K. Subban had above-average impacts on shots taken against. According to Natural Stat Trick, in 287 games from 2011-12 through 2014-15, Subban had relative Corsi Against per 60 rates of -4.29, -8.14, -4.97, and -3.33. While he was very effective at limiting netfront shots in the first three years mentioned, in 2014-15 opposing teams started getting an inordinate amount of shots right where Subban was normally so successful at preventing them. Since that season, he has struggled to prevent teams from getting shots right in front or to the side of the goaltender, and this is what his last season of isolated impact shot map look like from HockeyViz:

HockeyViz

While Subban used to be successful at preventing shots from both sides of the goaltender, by this stage of his career his limited agility and poor economy of movement seems to hold him back from being a truly effective defensive defenseman. In his last three seasons, his relative CA/60 have been -1.61 and -2.36 with the Nashville Predators and then -0.38 with the New Jersey Devils. But as you can see from the isolated map, those attempts against come from dangerous spots. Over the same seasons, his relative xGA/60 has gone from +0.07 to +0.15 to +0.24. Subban has been steadily getting worse - and it seems he’s left his best defensive play in Montreal, save for an outlier 2016-17 season in Nashville when his defensive impacts were pretty good. Therefore, I find it highly unlikely that P.K. Subban improves his even strength defense in his last two seasons in New Jersey, unless he really discovers how poorly he’s been approaching the game on the back end and makes significant adjustments.

Even Strength Offense

P.K. Subban, as already stated, averaged roughly 52 points per 82 games played in his first nine full seasons in the NHL. In the last three seasons alone, he has gone from 59 points in 2017-18 to 31 points in 63 games in 2018-19 to 18 points in 2019-20. This precipitous decline has something to do with power play production, but equally so with even strength play. He had 33 even strength points in 2017-18, and only 12 in 2019-20. He is certainly not getting fewer minutes - he still played 22 minutes a game under John Hynes and Alain Nasreddine. Some of his decline has to do with poor shooting in 2019-20. Here’s an individual shot map from HockeyViz:

HockeyViz

I actually think there are some promising signs here. Throughout Subban’s career, he has been an up-and-down shooter. His career shooting percentage is 6.0%, but he’s bounced around a lot. For example, from 2012-13 through 2016-17, his percentage went from 8.7 to 4.9 to 8.8 to 3.4 to 7.0. He seems to be the victim of a luck pendulum, and 2019-20 might have been part of a swing toward the unlucky. The positive signs here is he took 82 wrist shots in 2019-20, and only got two goals. That’s a 2.4% rate on his wrist shots, and he wasn’t even taking them from low-percentage locations. The lower he gets in the zone, the more likely he is to opt for a wrist shot over his slap shot - and it just didn’t work last season. If Subban can get back into the double-digit goal range, I think fans would at least be happy with that. He might rely on his slap shot for most of his goals, but his willingness to take the puck closer to the net could help him regain that type of performance. His unluckiness in 2019-20 is even more visible when you consider this is one of the two wrist shot goals he had:

The bigger issue, though, is his terrible assist numbers. With only seven even strength assists in 2019-20, he set a career low. However, Subban did not necessarily do poorly at creating opportunities for his teammates to score. According to Natural Stat Trick, Subban created 0.67 rebounds per 60 - which is in line with his previous three seasons (2016-19) in which he created 0.68, 0.68, and then 1.03 rebounds per 60 minutes at five-on-five. His recorded 13 rebounds created were the highest on the Devils last season, and his 0.67 rebounds created per 60 were fifth among players who played more than 10 games with the team (including Taylor Hall), and first among defensemen. The next defenseman was Will Butcher, who created 0.49 rebounds per 60. Rebounds are a tricky stat to keep track of, though, and the Devils are not exactly the team you’d expect to take advantage of them. The point is - Subban still creates chances for the forwards to cash in on goals because of his shots. If he’s creating the most rebounds among defenseman, he is most likely creating the most chances for forwards to deflect his shots. The Devils just need to get better at that type of play (Nathan Bastian, anyone?). Subban does like his low slap shots, which are good for low-to-high deflections and rebounds.

P.K. Subban should probably defer to his forwards more often, though. It’s good when he creates opportunities for deflections or rebounds, but the Devils just are not that great with them. He also needs to avoid those turnovers high in the zone, and just be on the lookout for players like Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt, who can create opportunities lower in the zone (and hopefully in the case of Hughes start converting on) as long as Subban gets rid of the puck quick enough. Maybe then his assist numbers will become respectable again.

Power Play Production

P.K. Subban was bad on the power play last season. He was so bad on the power play that I’ve called for him to be taken off of it entirely. I think it’s extremely unlikely that happens, though, and I fully expect him to get significant power play minutes under Ruff and Recchi. In 160 minutes last season, Subban only had two goals and four assists. Both Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson had ten power play points in fewer minutes, with Severson scoring three goals. Here’s a comparison of the two, from Evolving Hockey:

Evolving Hockey

P.K. Subban might not have to worry about Will Butcher, who was even worse than him (one point in 72 minutes) last season. But he does need to worry about Damon Severson taking his power play minutes, and now he probably has to think about Ty Smith as well. There might be a degree of unluckiness to his awful production last season, but I have big problems with Subban’s approach to the power play. Winding up for shot after shot from the point, only to get blocked time and time again (and sometimes creating breakaways the other way) is not a recipe for success in today’s NHL. I’m more amenable to shots through traffic at even strength, but the Devils need to move the puck better on the power play. Subban does not seem like the guy who is best fit for that, and for that reason I have very little faith in Subban regaining his power play prowess. Of what little hope there is, he’s only a few seasons removed from his five goal, 20 assist performance on the power play with Nashville in 2017-18. In all of his first nine full seasons, Subban scored at least ten power play points, and had six straight seasons from 2012-2018 where he had at least 10 power play assists. But there were already signs of decline when he only had two goals and eight assists on the power play in 2018-19. Last season might have just been another step in that decline, and at this point my main hope is that Subban regains his even strength production.

Your Thoughts

How do you feel about P.K. Subban on the 2021 Devils? Do you think he’ll regain some of his form. How do you think he’ll rank among Devils defensemen in terms of performance? Who do you think he’ll be paired with? Would any pairing be particularly helpful to him finding his offensive ability again? Do you think he can transition to a better defensive player in his 30s? Or are we just running out the clock until he gets picked in the Expansion Draft or his contract expires? But if he finds his form again, should Fitzgerald consider an extension (within reason) after this or next season? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credit to Natural Stat Trick for advanced stats, Evolving Hockey for the RAPM/impact chart, and HockeyViz for the isolated shot maps.