P.K. Subban vs. His Peers

Richard Wolowicz

There's a lot of random commentary going on about just how good P.K. Subban is (or isn't) and I figured we should put it into perspective what class of player he really is, based on the 2011-12 NHL season. And it's an exceptional one.

Sometimes it takes a while for a defenseman to earn the respect of his peers, or a young player to overcome some early misconceptions about their play. P.K. Subban, upon being drafted, made a joke that the P.K. in his name stood for 'penalty kill'. It was considered a laugher at the time since he was viewed as a wildcard offensive defenseman, and thus was making a joke about his shortcomings.

Flash forward to 2011-12 and P.K. Subban is a better penalty killer than he is a power play quarterback... and he's a really good power play quarterback. But people don't seem to realize his defensive prowess just yet. They also see a man that has a few rough around the edges issues with his attitude based on his high level of confidence when he broke into the league. His charisma seems to bug some people for whatever reason, especially combined with his willingness to get involved in a lot of the trash talking and after the whistle activity on the ice. He's a target for criticism.

In that spirit, I found these comments by Michel Therrien bizarre:

The development year part is what gets me. Making him a better player? Sure, that's still possible. Better person? Hey, we can all be better people, maybe if we all only had Michel Therrien in our lives... But why is Subban being pointed out in particular for facing a development year? Therrien didn't say the team itself was facing a development year (which probably is true), he specified Subban. Which has me wondering... what the heck does that even mean?

Here's a refresher on Subban in 2011-12. And actually, to a lot of people, this might be new information. I've looked at players that had similar icetime in different situations across the league, and broke them into 'first pair' (top 60), 'second pair' (61-120), and so on. Subban was in the first pairing for each of the even strength, power play, and penalty kill situations. That's an impressive feat in itself... some players get some minutes off and play a supporting role on either of the power play or penalty kill situations, Subban features heavily in all three in a league wide comparison. Here's his icetime in a league rank:

P.K. Subban's Icetime
EV Total EV TOI/GP PP Total PP TOI/GP SH Total SH TOI/GP
Minutes 1473:42 18:11 283:04 3:29 211:42 2:36
League Rank (D only) 32nd 48th 12th 21st 37th 48th

By the way, in TOI combined, he was 14th in the NHL amongst defensemen with 1968:28 in 2011-12.

Since in all of these categories, he finished in the top 50, I think it is very appropriate to compare him with the top 60 in each situation: even strength, power play, and penalty kill situations. Fair, right? OK, so let's do that.

Subban's Even Strength Offense
Goals Assists Points Goals/60 Assists/60 Points/60 On Ice SH% On Ice Goals For/60
Actual Stats 2 19 21 0.08 0.77 0.85 9.83% 2.80
League Rank (D Only) 147th 23rd 42nd 177th 59th 94th 46th 54th
Rank Vs. Top 60 48th 18th 30th 48th 17th 27th 7th 13th

Wait a second... the dynamic P.K. Subban is that low of an offensive performer at even strength? It's true. Subban was about average for a top pairing defenseman in a lot of ways offensively, and that's surprising considering the team scored quite a bit at even strength when he was on the ice. Despite the Canadiens having a high on ice shooting percentage and being relatively prolific with Subban out there at scoring, Subban didn't factor into a lot of that in terms of showing up on the stats. His 2 even strength goals was particularly shocking. From the stat line here, you'd guess he played it pretty safe offensively, taking very few risks, or maybe was covering up for a more offensively dynamic defensive partner. His main defensive partner was Josh Gorges, so I think we all know that wasn't the case. The numbers didn't match the talent here for whatever reason.

Subban's Even Strength Defense
Corsi Rel QOC Pen Diff/60 ZS% On Ice SV% GA/60 Corsi/60 Rel Corsi Fenwick/60 Rel Fen.
Stats 1.266 -0.3 46.3% 92.0% 2.24 -0.17 6.31 0.26 5.79
League Rank 17th 149th 72nd 149th 124th 141st 69th 126th 52nd
Rank Vs. Top 60 12th 37th 17th 33rd 25th 35th 16th 37th 10th

Subban faced the twelfth toughest on ice competition and started in his defensive zone for faceoffs more than most top pairing defensemen do as well. Despite this, he pushed the play up the ice quite well, with pretty much even splits on shots directed towards the goal. Compared to the other Habs, this was an amazing feat: his relative stats put him in the top quarter of the league for top minutes defensemen, as the Canadiens weren't good at all in possession stats when Subban was on the bench.

Subban was quite bad in taking penalties, but his ability to draw penalties in retaliation or otherwise essentially nullified this risk. It's also quite possible he was more free to stir things up since the Canadiens' penalty kill was strong. Subban was 59th amongst top pairing blueliners (out of 60) in terms of taking penalties, but was 1st in terms of drawing them. A lot of penalties were called when Subban was on the ice.

Other notable stats: His PDO (On Ice SH% and SV% combined) was 6th highest amongst top pairing defensemen, while his On Ice Goal Differential was 2nd best. This was despite the tough competition he faced and the unfavourable zone starts. I had a rough guide 'difficulty' ranking made up that averaged a player's TOI/GP, Corsi Rel QOC, and ZS% league wide rankings and Subban came out as the 15th most difficult in the league. Fellow Canadiens 2007 draft pick Ryan McDonagh led the league in that difficulty category.

Subban's Power Play Statistics
Goals Assists Points Points/60 On Ice SH% Corsi Rel Corsi GF/60 Shots on Net/60
Stats 5 19 24 5.09 9.09% 75.71 5.09 4.41 69.71
League Rank 9th 5th 5th 19th 145th 106th 77th 142nd 90th
Rank Vs. Top 45* 9th 5th 5th 6th 41st 34th 28th 41st 27th

Subban had a lot of power play points but his team wasn't all that great in comparison to other top power play teams. This means that he was likely involved in a greater amount of the goals that were scored by his team than his peers were. The underlying numbers for Subban and the Canadiens power play were fairly average, yet Subban was a top 5 or 6 player production wise in the league.

Shots on Net, by the way, is simply looking at the offensive production (goals, saves, and missed shots) that a team put up while the player was on the ice, not a +/- ration like Corsi which subtracts the shots given up by the team as well. In other words, it is simply the (+) stat when calculating a player's Fenwick rating. I also only included the top 45 here rather than the top 60 in comparison, due to the amount of power plays that feature four forwards and one defensemen rather than the traditional three forwards and two defensemen setup.

Subban's Penalty Kill Statistics
Points Points/60 On Ice SV% Corsi Rel Corsi GA On/60 Shots Against Net/60 Shot Blk %
Stats 1 0.28 91.1% -61.14 11.41 3.28 52.78 32.75%
League Rank 39th 50th 83rd 73rd 97th 82nd 51st 34th
Rank Vs. Top 60 30th 19th 11th 3rd 3rd 3rd 2nd 3rd

Remember that "P.K. stands for Penalty Kill" joke? It actually might as well be true. P.K. Subban was outstanding as a penalty killer in 2011-12. This can't be emphasized enough. The Habs' penalty kill suffered virtually no drop off after the trade of Hal Gill, which increased Subban's role even more as he jumped from a heavily used 3rd option to the default top 2 option with Josh Gorges. The Canadiens' penalty kill as a whole was outstanding, but Subban was a major part of its success. Compared to other top defenders in the league Subban stood out in this discipline.

It is tough to totally separate the system from the player, particularly in special teams, but Subban compared favourably to both Gorges and Gill in this regard, and no other Canadiens blueliners were even close to the level of those three.

Conclusions

P.K. Subban is an elite defender. You won't find many more instances of top level play in all these disciplines around the league at all. In fact, where Subban lagged in 2011-12 was pretty much exclusively in even strength offensive production, which he was merely doing at an average rate for a top pairing player. His defending at even strength put him in the top dozen or so in the NHL.

In this manner, I had Subban in a group of five players who weren't quite elite offensively but were defensively, along with Dan Hamhuis, Drew Doughty, Brian Campbell, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Players that were the opposite, that were elite offensively but average (to below average) first pairing blueliners defensively were Alex Pietrangelo, Duncan Keith, Dennis Wideman, Matthew Carle, and Dustin Byfuglien.

And then there was his special teams play. He was heavily relied upon in both areas, and in the end, I haven't found a single defender in the NHL who was better than him when you combine those two disciplines. Kimmo Timmonen of the Philadelphia Flyers was the player I found second most impressive in overall special teams ability, with Alex Pietrangelo, Alexander Edler, and Dan Boyle also near the top.

In 2011-12, that special teams play made Subban the best of the rest. Even strength play is the most important value to any team, so of all the players that weren't entirely elite at even strength I had Subban as the most valuable. So who was better? Well, there were your three Norris Trophy finalists (Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara), as well as other well paid top defenders (Dan Boyle, Brent Seabrook, Kevin Bieksa), and one guy that should be Subban's teammate (McDonagh).

There is very little separating Subban from the elite group. I don't honestly know what Therrien sees in Subban that could possibly be worthy of calling him a player in a 'development year'. He's right there on the defensive side of the ice with the best in the world. He's arguably right there as a PP quarterback, but with the return of Andrei Markov he may be able to take fewer minutes on that front, which could help him increase his even strength minutes. Maybe his production will go up there as well. Maybe he'll personally shoot better than 3.41% this next year.

I'm not sure if Subban will ever be a Norris Trophy winner but if you look at the players he's comparable to here, you can tell that he's worth a lot of money. And I feel he had a better 2011-12 than the players who placed 4th through 10th on the Norris Trophy balloting (the voters couldn't even pick out the best defenseman on the Rangers, Canucks or Blackhawks last year). Just how much money is he worth? Well, let's look at who I compared him to and how much they make:

P.K. Subban's Comparables
Player Age 12/13 Cap Hit
Shea Weber 27 $7,857,143
Brian Campbell 33 $7,142,875
Drew Doughty 23 $7,000,000
Zdeno Chara 35 $6,916,667
Dan Boyle 36 $6,666,667
Erik Karlsson 22 $6,500,000
Kimmo Timonen 37 $6,333,333
Brent Seabrook 27 $5,800,000
Duncan Keith 29 $5,538,462
Matt Carle 28 $5,500,000
Dennis Wideman 29 $5,250,000
Dustin Byfuglien 27 $5,200,000
Kevin Bieksa 31 $4,600,000
Dan Hamhuis 30 $4,500,000
Alexander Edler 26 $3,250,000 (UFA 2013)
Alex Pietrangelo 22 $3,166,666 (RFA 2013)
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 25 $3,100,000 ($4,250,000 in 13/14)
Ryan McDonagh 23 $1,300,000 (RFA 2013)
P.K. Subban 23 RFA

There are only a handful of young defensemen that compare to Subban, and they have either been handsomely rewarded (Doughty, Karlsson) or are a year away from their big payday (Pietrangelo, McDonagh). Karlsson and Doughty signed 7 and 8 year contracts as well. The other players that Subban compares well to are generally veterans that have had great years, most of whom played on strong teams (Byfuglien and Wideman being the exceptions, but again, they weren't perfect comparables due to their lack of defensive accumen).

There is one player in the high end contract wise and close to Subban's age that didn't deliver those high end results in 2011-12, and that was Tyler Myers. He is on a $5.5m contract that was a seven year deal. Myers was better in 2010-11 when he got that contract, but he was not Subban in 11-12 good.

Simply put, there is hardly an outrageous contract out there that Subban could sign with the Canadiens. He's clearly their best positional player. He's elite amongst all defenders, and especially amongst those his own age. He's got several of his best years ahead of him. Sure, Michel Therrien, he has things to learn about the game, but if he quit developing today and could never beat his 2011-12 season (but matched it or close to it) he'd still be worth paying a lot of money to.

P.K. Subban is a star. And it's outrageous that it's taken this long to get him under contract for 2012-13.

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