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Powerplays, shot quality and P.K. Subban

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Has P.K. reached his full potential as a powerplay quarterback?

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something intensely satisfying about a defenseman winding up from the point and blasting a one-timer through a maze of legs and past an outstretched goaltender. With his mix of sound technique and explosive strength, P.K. Subban has proven himself to be among the best in the business at quarterbacking a powerplay. The question for the 2013 Norris Trophy winner is, can he get even better?

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The 2013-14 season was a banner year for Subban, having led his team all the way to the Conference Finals. In regular season, he set career highs in ice time, assists and points while dominating puck possession in his usual style. However, overlooked is the fact that Subban’s shooting conversion rate dipped noticeably compared to previous years.

In 2014, he only scored on 4.9% of shots on goal (compared to his career average of 5.7% and 2013’s 8.7%). The commonly accepted theory in the advanced stats community is that shooting percentage varies unpredictably and regresses heavily to the mean. There’s no doubt some element of truth to the theory, but until sophisticated player-tracking technologies like SportVU are implemented across the NHL in a year or two from now, it’s impossible to prove things one way or the other.

However, using a combination of video analysis and a nifty site called Super Shot Search, we can now compare Subban’s shooting tendencies to that of a similar player, and see what lies behind the numbers. As luck would have it, we have a perfect candidate for such a head-to-head comparison.

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Not too long before Subban, Nashville’s Shea Weber set the standard for NHL defensemen, both in terms of raw power and in terms of his cap hit. With 347 points in 607 career NHL games (0.57 point per game, compared to Subban’s 0.59), Weber ranks among the elite offensive blueliners in the league. More importantly for us, his career shooting percentage is 8.1%, significantly higher than Subban’s 5.7% success rate. Last season, Weber led all NHL blueliners with 23 goals on the strength of a career-best 11.8% shooting percentage.

Both guys play the same position and have more or less the same offensive role on their teams. I don’t really buy the argument that Weber has a better shot, and definitely don’t think he’s on the receiving end of better passes, so what accounts for that gap?

At even strength

Having looked over Weber’s highlight reels and watched Subban, either in person or on TV, almost 90 times this year, my first hunch is that Weber is given a lot more freedom by the Nashville coaching staff to join the rush and act as a forth forward. It’s a theory which makes sense on the surface, but which doesn’t actually hold much water when looking at the hard evidence.

It turns out that neither player takes many close-range shots at 5-on-5. Subban went 2-for-7 (28.6%) from 30 feet on in, while Weber had 2 goals on 6 shots (33.3%). In 2013-14, it took a truly glorious opportunity for either defenseman to cut in toward goal, but they usually made it count.

When we move beyond 30 feet, we start seeing a somewhat different picture. Either by personal habit or coaching staff design, Subban tends to shoot the puck into the zone from beyond the blue line with much more frequency than Weber. Already, we see a 5 foot difference in average shot distance and a 1.4% gap in shooting percentage, both in favour of Weber. The large gap in shot volume (125 total shots for Weber versus 96 for Subban) is also noteworthy, but then again, Montreal does possess a quantity of scoring forwards whom to funnel the puck toward in the opposing zone. The same could not be said for the Predators, who rely on Weber more than anyone else to create shots on net.

On the powerplay

While the even strength data is inconclusive, we start seeing some serious trends once we get to the man advantage stats. With the eye test, one is led to believe that Subban and Weber have a similar way of running the point, patrolling the right side of the ice off the faceoff before switching sides with their partners and loading up on their fearsome one-timers. Instead, there are two important distinctions between Weber and Subban, both of which have helped the former score 10 more goals than the latter over the course of the 2013-14 season.

The first major difference in process between the two shooters is their positional aggressiveness. For most of the season, Subban’s linemates on the Habs’ first powerplay unit were Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Brendan Gallagher and Andrei Markov, a well-rounded group of offensive players who can all create on the fly with the puck. In a way, the skill level of the five-man group is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Desharnais, Gallagher and Pacioretty initiate the action so well from beneath the goal line and the sideboard that Subban and Markov rarely see it fit to pinch down and attempt a shot from the low slot. When a defenseman does decide to venture into the prime scoring area between the faceoff circles, it is usually Markov and not Subban, possibly because the Russian is no longer well-equipped to deal with the worst-case scenario of a 2-on-1 break going the other way.

In 82 regular season games, Subban has attempted a grand total of 4 powerplay shots from 30 feet or closer, scoring on 0 of them. Meanwhile, Weber, playing alongside young Roman Josi in Nashville, had more or less carte blanche from ex-coach Barry Trotz to create chaos in the offensive zone with his positioning. In 82 games, the Preds' captain put 9 pucks on net from the slot, converting on 5 of those chances.

The last big difference in the results of Montreal and Nashville’s number one powerplay gunners relates to their tactics while stationed at the traditional point position. Subban seems to use the blueline as a reference and let it rip whenever he has an opening, Weber’s favorite place to set up his one-timer is right at the top of the left circle, about 35 feet out. Looking at Subban’s shot locations, we see a neat, tightly grouped line running from one sideboard to the other, roughly 57 feet from the opposing goal line. 98 shots make up that line, 94 of which were stopped. Meanwhile, Weber’s shot spread is far looser, but generally closer to the net and with a higher scoring percentage.

Assuming both players square up and unleash a 90mph slap shot, Subban’s try from 60 feet out would reach a Henrik Lundqvist or a Tuukka Rask in about 0.46 seconds, while Weber’s identical shot from 35 feet away would go from stick blade to net in 0.27 seconds, 42 percent faster. In a league where goaltenders are as good as they are, it can mean the difference between an easy save and a game-winning goal. Perhaps not coincidentally, Montreal’s powerplay was 19th best across the NHL in 2013-14 with a 17.2% success rate. Meanwhile, with a much less accomplished collection of players, Nashville managed to finish 12th overall, scoring on 19.2% of man advantage opportunities.

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So what are some ways for the Habs’ powerplay quarterback to stem the tide? From an individual point of view, it could be helpful to visualize the top of the left circle, rather than the very edge of the zone inside the blueline, as ideal release location for a shot. Just moving in by one stick length can add the equivalent of 5mph to a shot, thereby giving opposing netminders less time to set up and increasing the chance of a rebound or a clean goal. From a coaching point of view, perhaps giving more leeway for defensemen read the play and pinch down in order to create shooting opportunities in the slot could yield a few extra goals. It could also be worthwhile to identify a player with enough vision and foot speed to compliment and cover for the aggressive primary shooter. Someone like Mike Green in Washington (Ovechkin), Roman Josi in Nashville (Weber) or Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay (Stamkos). The Habs have three potential candidates for the job in Markov, Gilbert and Beaulieu. One of the three is bound to be the right man for the job.