Over the last year on Eyes on the Prize, there isn't much that hasn't been said about P.K. Subban. He won this little thing called the Norris Trophy last year, awarded to the best defenseman in the league, yet somehow he still gets very little respect in NHL media, as he's somehow still labelled as a defensive liability, even when he's very clearly among the league's elite defensive players.
Even though Subban has been playing at an elite level almost since day one, the only time he's ever received respect is when his offensive performance matches his defensive performance. Last season everything came together for Subban, and if he was actually used in all situations like he should have been, he may not have any doubters left.
But what can we reasonably expect from Subban this season? Josh Gorges believes he has yet another level, but how much better could he possibly get? He's already quite possibly the best defenseman in the NHL.
In the following graph, the blue line is Subban's even-strength Fenwick percentage from 2010 to 2013, the red line is his team's even strength Fenwick percentage without him on the ice, and the green line is Subban's offensive zone start percentage, giving us insight into his usage and role. All statistics are at even strength, and all are rolling 10-game averages. What this means is that aside from the first 10 points in the graph, every point represents a 10-game sample, giving us a better grasp of trends.
With all that information on one graph, it can look a little messy and be tough to decipher, so I've included trend lines for each statistic. To understand the trend lines, blue turns into black, red turns into yellow, and green turns into purple. The x-axis is simply the games to represent time, and the y-axis is the percentage in decimal form, and the placement of the y-axis is the beginning of the 2013 season.
Whoa, what's up with that downward slope? Well, it's pretty artificial to be honest. Subban's peak in his rookie year as a third pairing defenseman was so high, and the dead year under Randy Cunneyworth pulled him so far below it, that we get a downward trend in performance, even though 2013 was very clearly his highest level of performance. Just to illustrate that point, take a look at Subban's performance over the past two years:
Paints quite a different picture, doesn't it?
Ever since Subban joined the Canadiens, they've been a better even-strength team, but even now with the increased depth on the roster, they're often below 50% Fenwick when he isn't on the ice. Under Cunneyworth, there were periods where the team was below 40% when Subban wasn't on the ice, that's record-setting bad.
Subban's role became easier last year as Therrien used him in the offensive zone a lot more than he's used to, but that isn't likely to continue this year. Eventually any competent coaching staff will realize the benefits of using Subban in the defensive zone more often than not.
So can we expect another season where Subban paces for 74 points over 82 games? Can he hit 20 goals? These are things you shouldn't bet on. Subban is a phenomenal talent, but putting up those kinds of points as a defenseman on a consistent basis is almost impossible if you play any semblance of a defensive game. Subban's main exertion at even strength is to impact possession on the defensive side of the puck, where he allowed the fourth fewest shots-against per minute in the NHL among defensemen who played over 600 minutes in the NHL last season.
Because of this usage, he does most of his offensive damage on the powerplay, and a lot of damage he did last year, but that kind of production is extremely unlikely to repeat, even for someone as talented as P.K. Subban. If you're taking the safe bet on him, you shouldn't project much more than 50 points for Subban this year, coupled with 15 or so goals. That's already the production of a lower end first line forward, which is a lot to ask of a defenseman.
In all likelihood, Subban will be a better player this year than last year, be even better defensively, used more, and produce slightly less. Then again, Subban has a habit of proving people wrong, and I would love to be one of those people.