This week, we are going to focus on New Jersey Devils who are signed beyond next season. While Ray Shero’s assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald is now the permanent full-time GM, that does not necessarily mean that Fitzgerald will follow the same approach that Shero would. It is up in the air as to whether he will tear down most of the Devils roster and rebuild anew, or build upon the roster already set. Fitzgerald does have plenty of space available now and only eight players signed beyond 2020-21. There is a lot he can do, and he can start by evaluating the futures for those players signed beyond next season. We will do the same this week. Starting this week off is a look at the future of defenseman P.K. Subban.
P.K. Subban: A 2019-20 Summary of Play
The Devils made a blockbuster deal at the 2019 NHL Draft last June to acquire P.K. Subban. It took two second round picks, Steve Santini, and Jeremy Davies to bring the former Norris trophy winner. I liked it, many of you liked it, and it was hard not to get hyped for Subban. He was a reason why many Devils fans felt the team would be much better in 2019-20. A big name defender to add his attacking talent to a team that will have a healthy Taylor Hall, an acquired Nikita Gusev, a drafted Jack Hughes, and a growing young roster? Surely, they could make the playoffs.
As we know, they did not. They face planted so hard that Hall was traded away, head coach John Hynes was dumped, Shero was terminated, the team were sellers by the trade deadline, and the Devils were essentially out of the postseason picture by New Year’s Eve 2019. The Devils had many issues and one of them was that Subban was far from playing like a big name defender.
In 5-on-5 hockey, the Devils’ opponents out-performed the Devils when Subban was on the ice. Granted, that happened to all of the Devils defensemenl; but the point remains that it shows that Subban was not particularly effective in the most common situation in hockey. Check out this table of his 5-on-5 stats I pulled from Natural Stat Trick:
While Subban was certainly better than Mirco Mueller, Matt Tennyson, Connor Carrick, and Andy Greene among others, that does not mean that Subban was a good player. The Devils saw Subban take almost twice as many penalties as he drew; witness more attempts, shots, and scoring chances against the Devils than for them; and produced just eleven points in 5-on-5 play. Making matters worse was that the actual goals were worse than what the expected goal model would suggest. An on-ice GF/60 below two and an on-ice GA/60 nearly three is going to make a lot of people think that your defense was not very good. And the other stats support that thinking, even if Subban could have benefited from better puck luck at both ends of the rink. This is problematic since 5-on-5 hockey is the most common situation in hockey.
One of the hopes for Subban was to help the power play excel. That did not happen either. Subban was even taken off power play units for a stretch of the season, limiting his power play ice time to just over 160 minutes. According to his power play rate stats at Natural Stat Trick, when Subban was on the ice, the Devils generated attempts at a rate of just 83.92 per 60 minutes (this is not a good rate in man advantage situation), shots on net at a rate of just 51.47 per 60 minutes (also not a good rate), scoring chances at a rate of 41.07 per 60 minutes (again, also not a good rate), and high danger scoring chances at a rate of 16.04 per 60 minutes (yet again, not good). For a player who has been known to be an effective component on power plays for the last decade or so, this was disappointing. So were Subban’s individual production the power play: two goals and four secondary assists. Subban’s six power play points were even less than the ten he picked up in his injury-shortened 63-game campaign with Nashville. The Devils’ power play had issues last season as a whole and Subban, somehow, was not an answer for them.
On a brighter side, Subban did well in his time on the penalty kill. While he only played just over 113 minutes on it, the on-ice rates at Natural Stat Trick for Subban are quite good. When he was on the ice, the Devils allowed fewer than 70 attempts per 60 minutes, just over 40 shots per 60 minutes, fewer than 34 scoring chances per 60 minutes, and just over 12 high-danger chances per 60 minutes. Aside from the last rate, those are excellent values. It points to the Devils being effective in shorthanded situations when Subban is on the ice. If nothing else, P.K. Subban showed that he should be on a PK (and proved me wrong).
However, playing well in shorthanded situations is only small solace compared to the decisively poor numbers in 5-on-5 and power play situations. This disappointment is much larger when you consider Subban’s salary. In addition to trading Santini, Davies, and two second round picks, the Devils took on Subban’s massive contract. His cap hit is $9 million and, as per CapFriendly, Subban made $10 million last season. That is not a typo. Subban was one of the privileged 27 NHL players to have made at least $10 million last season. Right or wrong, that is Superstar level money. I do not think the most passionate of Subban fans could honestly say he played to that level in New Jersey last season. Even with all of New Jersey’s issues.
Off the ice, Subban is a Superstar. Subban is a finalist for the King Clancy Trophy, and the linked post at NJ.com explains why he is a finalist this year. Subban followed in the footsteps of Connor Carrick, started his own podcast (The Ugly Duck Podcast), and one of his first guest was NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman - who has been remarkably busy over the past few months. But he made time for Subban. He followed that up with Jerry Bruckheimer. Subban even trained with one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment back in July. He is still very much a celebrity. You could not ask for a better representative of the team off the ice. Of course, he is not being paid for that. He is being paid to be an ace defenseman on the ice and he was not even close to that for New Jersey.
Sure, New Jersey did not give Subban his current contract; but they took it on all the same. Yes, Subban was not the worst defenseman on the team, but the level of expectation should be higher than being better than Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick. The level of expectation is that he at least produce points at a high rate as he did in the past, not even meeting the production set in a injury-shortened 2019-20 season for Nashville. The level of expectation is that by being a face of one of the teams, he should be one of the best players on the team. He was not even the best Canadian-born defenseman whose last name begins with a ‘S’ last season. It was not a good season for Subban or the Devils.
So What Do You Do with Subban Now?
Now, Fitzgerald needs to decide what to do with the 31-year old right-sided defenseman. Subban definitely did not perform to the expectations of his contract or what most were hoping when he was acquired last year. His contract makes him very difficult to move. Anyone with a cap hit of $9 million is difficult to move. It is even harder when the player clearly did not meet up to it last season. To that end, the Devils are likely going to have to make the best of it with Subban in 2020-21.
In defense of Subban, the Devils were not short on other issues. The original head coach was fired and the assistant who was made the interim was not much better. The GM who made the deal was fired. The star left winger was traded away. The team became weaker as the trade deadline approached. As disappointing as Subban played last season, it became harder for anyone on the roster to really excel as 2019-20 went on.
Regardless of how Fitzgerald views the rebuild, 2020-21 can be seen as hitting a reset button of sorts. Lindy Ruff is now the head coach. He has yet to determine his staff, but there could be further changes that could impact the blueline (hopefully for the better). Subban surely knows that last season went poorly and can go into this season with a point to prove. If Fitzgerald can at least keep the Devils to be more stable next season, perhaps Subban and other players can be able to succeed a bit more.
There are further adjustments that could be made. Former women’s coach of McGill University and Toronto Marlies assistant coach and current
blogger newsletter writer Jack Han released a book called Hockey Tactics 2020 earlier this year. It is a very accessible book that goes into depth about how a team is set up on the ice and also how a player’s mechanics and positioning impacts what they can or cannot do on the ice. I recommend it. Han has a chapter devoted entirely to P.K. Subban entitled “What Happened to P.K. Subban.” Without going over the entire chapter, Han pointed out examples of Subban’s posture, skating stride, and lack of aggressiveness being less than ideal and how they contributed to less than ideal plays for Subban and the Devils. Han is a believer than Subban can bounce back and cites older players like Mark Giordano, Andy Greene, and Zdeno Chara as examples. But he pointed out how they had to have a higher attention to detail and make adjustments to their game on a yearly basis to stay relevant in the NHL. While Subban just turned 31, Han points out he does have time to make chances now to at least reduce his decline as a player.
Han did include a few suggestions to how Subban can adjust his body and his game. Specifically, working on improving his flexibility and rotation of his ankles, hips, and spine; lengthening his skating stride; and focusing on making plays with the puck with just one touch. I think these are good suggestions to start with. I hope the Devils will be able to encourage these and other ideas if only because Subban is likely going to stay in New Jersey in 2020-21. I will add to Han’s suggestions that that Ruff and his future staff can help Subban out further by keeping him away from certain forward units.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Subban’s common forward teammates at 5-on-5 hockey last season that are still Devils are Travis Zajac, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Miles Wood, and Nikita Gusev. The Devils did well with Subban and Gusev. They were OK when Subban and Zajac, Palmieri, and Hischier were on the ice. The Subban-Wood combination was a disaster from a possession point of view with a woeful 41%. Han used an example of Subban launching a hopeful long pass to Wood as a non-ideal play. Unfortunately, the previous regime thought dump-and-chase was good for Wood, it rarely was, and if keeping Subban and Wood apart cuts down on it, then I would encourage it. Or at least change how those two should play. It is not much, but it at least something in the Devils’ control.
Ultimately, for now, the Devils will be with Subban for another season. The good news is that Subban’s humongous cap hit does not really hinder the Devils. They have the most cap space in the NHL right now and are currently projected to have over $25 million for next season per CapFriendly. On their own Subban’s contract (and Cory Schneider’s contract and Travis Zajac’s contract) look terrible. But they are not going to prevent Fitzgerald from doing anything short of having a massive spending spree in free agency in this offseason. Even then, he can spend a lot - although if you have paid attention to the posts in this past week, he should not.
So Will Subban See Out His Contract in New Jersey?
I do not think so. I think Subban is likely to be dealt by the NHL Trade Deadline in 2022. It could be even earlier. I think opportunities to move Subban will start open up in 2022 and grow from there.
It is true that Subban’s cap hit is $9 million and that is a lot for most teams to fit into their cap, especially if it stays flat. However, Subban’s contract structure makes it easier for teams to take him. CapFriendly has the details. Subban was paid a flat $10 million in base salary in 2019-20. That is what the Devils had to pay him. For 2020-21, Subban gets $8 million, with $6 million as part of a signing bonus. The signing bonus is a lump sum that is typically paid out on July 1 of that offseason. With the pandemic throwing off the entire schedule, Subban either received his $6 million already for 2020-21 or will receive it ahead of the season. Subban’s salary, which gets paid out over the course of the regular season, is just $2 million. In other words, the Devils will pay Subban up front a very large amount of money and will pay him much less during the season.
What this means is that Subban is effectively a player with a much higher cap hit than actual salary. These are the kinds of contracts that attract two types of teams: Rebuilding teams that want to “weaponize” their cap space and teams that have ownership-imposed salary limits below the cap. The Devils were the former and still are for next season. However, a lot can change in two seasons, and there could be others in a similar situation to New Jersey. There are definitely teams now that want to have a cheaper roster than their salary cap commitment like Florida and Ottawa and those teams could still be in that situation in 2022. I do not think teams will go for Subban in this offseason knowing that there will be one more season of a signing bonus to pay out on top of taking on a $9 million cap hit for two seasons. However, once the Devils pay off that signing bonus ahead of 2021-22, teams may be willing to do so knowing that they just have to pay Subban $2 million over a the season.
Furthermore, as the season goes on, more teams will be able to take on Subban’s deal. The cap impact will not be as significant. It definitely will not be if the Devils are willing to take on part of the contract to make it work. Someone like Subban will become more tantalizing as the trade deadline approaches to a team looking for a veteran defenseman to bolster their roster ahead of a playoff run. Such a opportunity would surely entice Subban, who has yet to have a lot of playoff success what with being in Montreal for most of his career. And the Devils could ultimately recoup part of the quality they sent to Nashville to get Subban in the first place.
Should Subban continue to flounder in 2020-21 and 2021-22, the Devils could at least get ahead of letting him go away for free. If he makes improvements to his game and becomes a more valuable player for the Devils, then the Devils could command a bigger return provided the Devils are still selling. And if they are not, Subban will likely play a key role in it. The larger point remains: Subban may not be all that moveable today or next season. But by the 2022 trade deadline, he absolutely could be. And it would be up to the Devils as Subban’s no-movement clause was removed as part of past transactions.
Ultimately, I think the Devils will keep P.K. Subban up until the 2022 Trade Deadline. He’ll make it to the final season on his deal with New Jersey, but I think it ends in another organization. I think his contract nearly guarantees he stays for this coming season.
I certainly hope he has a better season. Not only for the Devils’ sake, but for his own. If Subban can make adjustments to his mechanics on the ice and the Devils can put him in a better position to succeed, then he can extend his career. Like Han, I want to believe in Subban being a significant player on the Devils’ blueline. He is being paid like one, he is seen as a star, and the Devils could absolutely use someone playing much better than the Muellers and Carricks of the league. As one of the few Devils over the age of 30 on the roster for next season, he will be seen as a leader and an example to other players. It is in everyone’s best interest that he improves. A repeat of what we saw in 2019-20 would only cement the fact that Subban has declined as a player and essentially keep the Devils stuck with a very-much-past-his-prime Subban.
I want to believe. I know the Norris-trophy-winning Subban is not going to step on The Rock’s rink anytime soon. Those days are past. But surely he can be better than he was last season, right? Surely, he can be some kind of a positive impact player on a blueline that currently lacks any. At the least, there is a chance for a bounce-back season. And he will continue to get the publicity and attention like no other hockey player in this continent while remaining as a Devil.
Now I want to know what you think. How long do you think the Devils will keep P.K. Subban? Will he finish out his contract with New Jersey or do you think he gets moved before then? Do you think Subban can have a better 2020-21 season, and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Subban in the comments. Thank you for reading.