When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Shea Weber from the Nashville Predators three seasons ago, one of the biggest concerns expressed at the time was that Marc Bergevin had not only acquired the older player, but also the player who was under contract for the longer period of time (eight years for P.K. Subban vs 10 for Weber). The move was largely seen as “win now,” even though the Canadiens’ general manager never came close to uttering those words. It was widely assumed that Weber would — at best — be an albatross long before his contract was set to expire, and at worst, a burden on the Habs’ blueline within 2-3 years.
Three years down the road, it’s clear that the worst-case scenario has not occurred. Weber, injuries and all, is still the best defenceman on a Canadiens’ roster that is no longer dependent on Carey Price posting a .930 save percentage. At the same time, the “win now” scenario has not come to pass either and the Canadiens are facing the reality of a clearly aging Weber as the current cornerstone of their defence corps.
Time waits for no individual
Several people have performed examinations of what happens to NHL players as they age and the general consensus is, to paraphrase Rob Vollman, that peak performance is attained by the ages of 24 and 25, then a gradual decline is observed until 30. After 30, the decline is more noticeable, with the risk of absolute collapse by 34 or 35. Josh and Luke Solberg (@EvolvingWild) confirmed this consensus using Dawson Sprigings’ WAR (wins-above-replacement) model.
What they found is that while forwards present a very neat profile, defencemen are much more erratic and prone to year-to-year fluctuations. All in all though, by age 32 or 33, the average player’s contribution can be expected to return to the level achieved during their rookie season. The rest is all downhill. Breaking up this combination statistic by game facet (offence, defence, special teams) shows that offensive output — both at even-strength and on the power play — is responsible for the vast majority of this age-related WAR decline. Defender defence doesn’t fall off a cliff until age 36.
When looking at Weber in this context, we’ll be using GAR (goals-above-replacement) numbers as well as WAR numbers. As GAR forms the basis for WAR — x goals equals one win — the two are largely interchangeable, and the available GAR data is easier to parse.
But is it actually Weber’s time?
Looking at Weber’s career to date, the first instinct is to panic at the trend post 2016-17. Before we do that, there’s a few other things to notice. First, Weber’s Nashville tenure was remarkably stable. There is a clear three-year peak from 2011-2014, but his other seasons in the Music City, including his sophomore campaign, have consistently been at a high level as well. Second, those peak three years occurred at ages 26-28, not 24-25, indicating that Weber may actually be a late-bloomer (he was 21 during his first full NHL season, after all). Finally, WAR is an accumulated stat, not a rate one, meaning that Weber’s injuries played a large factor in his low Montreal numbers these past two years. As for GAR/60, which is a rate stat, defenders are much more susceptible to sample size decreases compared to forwards because they tally points much less frequently.
The other half of explaining Weber’s Montreal numbers involves looking at his circumstances. For most of his Nashville tenure, especially his peak years, Weber’s play at even strength only accounted for roughly half of his annual accumulated GAR. In Montreal, apart from the first season, the current Canadiens’ captain hasn’t had the luxury of boosting his overall numbers on a functional power play. In 2017-18, he was further victimized by a wretched penalty-kill scheme that would cost Jean-Jacques Daigneault his job. How wretched? In a third of a season, Weber accumulated more negative GAR (-2.2) than in the four previous seasons where he posted a negative GAR number combined (-2.1).
Moreover, it takes two to tango, and Weber’s defensive partners in Montreal have not been the greatest dancers. For his last eight years in Nashville, he only had seven defensive partners: Ryan Suter (five years), Roman Josi (three years), Seth Jones (14 games), Francis Boullion (12 games), Scott Hannan (8 games), Alexander Sulzer (2 games), and Mattias Ekholm (1 game). In three years in Montreal, Weber has already surpassed that number, lining up next to (in chronological order) Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov, Victor Mete, Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn, David Schlemko, and Brett Kulak.
Finally, on a more bizarre note, Weber seems to have lost the ability to draw penalties in Montreal. From 2007 to 2016 as a Predator, Weber (in all game situations combined) took 196 penalties and drew 114 (58%). So far as a Hab, he’s taken 40 and drawn only 12 (30%).
No need for a new model yet
This is not to say that Weber hasn’t declined at all. It is clear that he’ll never reach the lofty heights of 2012 again, and there are legitimate concerns regarding his continued ability to shelter Mete on the top pairing while still excelling. As an example of this, the Kulak-Petry pairing outperformed the Weber-Mete duo from a possession perspective this past season, whereas two years ago, Markov-Petry were roughly only on level terms with Emelin-Weber.
At the same time, Weber is nowhere close to having fallen off the cliff that his career WAR chart would indicate. His career trajectory to date, with its prolonged plateau, would indicate a more gradual decline than the average player. Right now, the Canadiens still have the time and luxury of searching for Weber’s partner, rather than his replacement.
All GAR and WAR data from Evolving-Hockey.