Between COVID and the extended offseason, and the amount of turnover the team has withstood, it might be easy to forget that just last off-season, the Devils made a blockbuster trade to fill in what felt like the last big hole on the team, the lack of a #1 defender. We had MVP, Taylor Hall; a 3rd-year Nico Hischier; 1st overall rookie, Jack Hughes; and encouraging young goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. Add P.K. Subban, mix in a little optimism, and it’s not hard to see why the staff might’ve thought they had their own budding version of Point, Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy.
And, while last season was a dumpster fire, this season has been surprisingly competent at times. So you’d think that a big acquisition like Subban — while a waste of resources in 2019-20 — would be paying dividends now. While he had struggled the past two seasons, he’s a good fit for the #1 D-man in Ruff’s system on paper — big, physical, fast and plays all situations.
However, things have ... not worked out that way.
Below is a calculation of what P.K. Subban’s value is relative to that of a replacement-level player in the 6 categories used by Evolving-Hockey’s xGAR model.
Yeesh. P.K. is below replacement-level in everything except the powerplay where he is just above water. Unfortunately, as referenced above, this is not new. It continues a troubling trend of P.K.’s since the year we acquired him for, what was considered at the time, a bargain. Ray Shero took a measured risk that P.K.’s performance in 2018-19 was a fluke and that upward regression would allow him to steal a top pairing defender for a discount (in terms of assets, not money — he was DEFINITELY NOT a financial discount). After all, he was debatably the best defenceman in the NHL as recently as 2017-18.
What has transpired since then has been a consistent and unambiguous refutation of that rosy assessment. Not only has there been no upward regression, it seems that the fall from grace has become even more precipitous.
And I don’t want to make it seem like this is just some algorithm that makes Subban seem worse than he is. This is exactly what you’d expect given the results the Devils have had when he’s been on the ice since the beginning of last season.
With Subban over the past two seasons, the Devils are scoring 1.9 goals per hour at even strength and allowing 2.7. When he’s on the bench, the Devils improve to 2.5 goals per hour and 2.6 allowed. On the powerplay, the Devils are scoring 5.1 goals per hour with Subban and 7.4 without him. On the penalty kill, the Devils are allowing 8.5 with him, and 7.7 without him. And, over the past two seasons, Subban has taken 34 minor penalties and drawn only 12 — the minus-22 penalty differential is 3rd worst in the NHL behind only Ben Chiarot and Brandan Dillon. P.K. Subban has offered relatively little value in virtually all areas.
Whether we need to score or prevent a goal; whether on the powerplay, penalty kill, or even strength; whether we need stay out of the box, or put our opponents in it; P.K. Subban has made the Devils worse when he’s on the ice.
Now, the defensive part may not surprise you. P.K.’s reputation has never been one of a particularly strong defensive player (though he was actually basically league-average defensively in his younger years — he caught a bad wrap there IMO). It’s the offensive part that is likely frustrating to some. How can someone with his skating, his shot, and his aggressiveness be a negative offensive impact? Well, if you sum up his impacts all over the offensive zone, you actually probably get an essentially a neutral-impact player in terms of total shots taken. The problem is where those shots are being taken from. The graph below shows Subban’s isolated impact on shots taken from each area of the ice.
Unsurprisingly, Subban’s firing away from the right point has increased the frequency of shots the Devils take from there when he’s on the ice. But his firing away comes at the expense of shots from elsewhere in the OZ. Now, maybe you could argue that Subban’s shot is uniquely dangerous so it’s not as bad as it seems for him to take shots from this low-danger area. But with only 5 even-strength goals in 81 games as a Devil, that argument becomes harder to make. And before you argue that we need to take the point shot to generate subsequent opportunities, I’ll point out that the 50 shot attempts he’s take have generated zero (0) rebound opportunities in 2021 so far (via Moneypuck).
In fairness, his defensive equivalent of the graph above shows a big blue spot on his side of the DZ indicating low rates of HD chances on his side of the ice, but there’s a big red spot on the left that dwarfs it, so I’m more hesitant to give him credit for reducing chances.
P.K. Subban’s game has aged poorly, overall. According to metrics tracked by Corey Sznajder in my viz, his transition efficiency has fallen off measurably. As of 2018, 36 % of his entries and 41% of his exits were controlled. Last season, those numbers decreased to 28% and 33%. That dropped him from the 71st and 79th percentile to the 48th and 36th, respectively. His skating is not what it once was and he’s not able to carry the puck coast to coast as he could in his younger days. Similarly, his shot is not the weapon it used to be, so he should not be using it nearly as often as he does.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t improve! He still generate dangerous passes in the OZ more than other Devils defenders according to that same tracking data, and he creates shots in transition more than anyone but Severson. He’s also still a big body who is less likely to get pushed around at the net-mouth than almost anyone on this team, which possibly explains that blue mark on his side of the net at 5v5. After all, at 210lbs, he’s the heaviest skater on the team and, if you followed his offseason workouts on Instagram, you probably know it’s pure muscle.
As such, if P.K. focuses on being a physical presence preventing HD chances in the DZ, but becomes more deferential to his younger, faster forwards in the NZ and OZ by passing rather than carrying/shooting, we might be able to squeeze the most out of his waning time in NJ.
On a preponderance of all the evidence, it seems that it’s highly unlikely that P.K. Subban is a still a positive-impact NHL player, and it seems not entirely unlikely that he’s closer to an AHLer in terms of raw value (thought I’d like to see what his numbers look like with reduced responsibility). With his salary, reputation, and his potential; it doesn’t seem like a substantial change is imminent. And with Vatanen as the next righty on the list (and Tennyson after him), it’s not clear a change would improve things measurably anyway.
Dur to the circumstances in which the team finds itself, the Devils are probably just going to have to ride this out. There is not really a viable in-house solution, and in a season where chemistry is already a problem on special teams, removing a top-4 D-man doesn’t feel like it’s the medicine to the biggest problems facing this team. The best we can do is maximize the skills that P.K. still possesses, namely passing and physicality. If we do that, he and Murray may be able to serve as a viable bottom-4 pairing, assuming that Smith and Severson continue to do well in their top pairing role. If it’s business as usual though, P.K. is likely in for a tough finish to this year.