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A Tangled Web: The difficult task of evaluating Shea Weber

He’s praised for his play by coaches and teammates despite consistently looking poor by possession metrics. Which view is the right one?

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Shea Weber had a great game on Thursday night. He rocked Tobias Rieder with a bone-shattering hit. He blasted a point shot past Louis Domingue for his first goal at the Bell Centre, adding an assist later on. He was named the game’s first star.

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Shea Weber had another bad game on Thursday night. He bled shot attempts against, didn’t produce at even strength, and made his team better by being on the bench.

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Both takes are true. Both are red-hot, and sure to fire up the opposing side. Shea Weber’s curse is always going to be that he’ll polarize in much the same way P.K. Subban did, but for different reasons.

Weber’s game is predicated on a defence-first mentality, which means in order for him to play the game to his strengths, he needs to defend.

In his excellent breakdown of Al Montoya’s play against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ken Brumberger observed that the Canadiens haven’t been allowing the opposition many east-west passes on the attack, instead funneling the shooters into clear lanes to allow their goaltender to square up accordingly.

For a team like Montreal — one whose success relies so heavily on its goaltender — it makes sense to afford your netminder the best option to succeed on a play.

One wonders if this, to a degree, is part of Weber’s impact. As the sample size increases, there will no doubt be legions of studies devoted to Weber’s play as a Canadien.

Analytics have allowed growth in understanding the game, and have redefined notions of success for all but the most narrow-minded traditionalists. They have also been largely unkind to the defensive player.

Such is the case for Weber, who generates most of his offence on the power play, leaving his even-strength game largely a reaction to the opponent’s attack. There’s endless anecdotal evidence that speaks to Weber’s defensive prowess and a presence that intimidates other teams.

For that reason, measuring Shea Weber’s success in Montreal is going to be tricky. His ability to intimidate opponents and inspire his teammates is well-recorded. His offensive prowess with the man advantage is undeniable; his 8.3% shooting percentage since 2010-11 is good for third in the league among defenceman with more than 200 games played.

His ability to force shooters into places they may not favour, or to limit their options offensively, is still a hot topic for debate. A larger sample size of his games in Montreal should allow for a better look at what Weber’s impact on the attacking opposition really is, but it’s no secret his status among the elite defencemen in the league is very much in question. At the heart of the matter is Weber allowing the opposition chances, which is, generally speaking, a bad thing.

While the argument about his value continues, there’s no doubt about Weber coming as advertised. His booming shot, crushing hits, and — yes, I’ll say it — leadership are on full display. With the Canadiens racking up numbers in the win column early, Montreal fans are pleased.

Those happy fans won’t want to hear that Montreal’s PDO (a combination of shooting percentage and save percentage, indicative of luck) is unsustainably high right now at a league-high value, and the wins won’t last forever.

When the luck runs out, that’s when many will see Shea Weber in a different light. Winning tends to provide rose-coloured glasses.

But even to this cynic, things are looking pretty rosy right now.