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Karlsson vs Subban

I've seen this debate a lot, the evidence for Karlsson's dominance isn't what his booster claim it is. With a post-season collision between the Habs and Sens impending its time to make one thing abundantly clear. There is no proof Karlsson is more effective than Subban at even strength hockey.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

As some of you may have noticed, I like to keep track of what hockey internet denizens are talking about on places like HfBoards. This caught my eye, a poll on Erik Karlsson vs P.K. Subban that is closed for the reason it would be so ridiculously one sided in favour of Karlsson that its not worth having up there.

This debate gained immediacy now that the two young blueliners are going head to head in a playoff series and Andrew decided that a #KarlssonSucks hash tag was what the world needed.

Karlsson's big selling point is the incredible amount of points he puts up 5 on 5. But if you look at on ice result in total it becomes apparent that this does not translate into as large of a tangible advantage for his team as commonly assumed.

Goals For Goals Against Goal% Possession%
2011-12 Player 2.72 1.84 59.6 50.1
Team 2.23 2.31 49.1 47.7
Difference 0.49 -0.47 10.5 2.4
2013 Player 3.02 1.64 64.7 58.4
Team 2.59 2.15 54.7 53.5
Difference 0.43 -0.51 10.0 4.9
2011-13 Player 2.82 1.78 61.3 52.8
Difference 0.47 -0.48 10.3 3.2

Goals For Goals Against Goal% Possession%
2011-12 Player 3.03 2.46 55.2 53.7
Team 2.46 2.40 50.6 51.0
Difference 0.57 0.06 4.6 2.7
2013 Player 2.15 1.72 55.6 56.3
Team 1.93 1.96 49.6 52.9
Difference 0.22 -0.24 6.0 3.4
2011-13 Player 2.90 2.35 55.3 54.1
Difference 0.52 0.02 4.8 2.8

(Possession is measured here by Fenwick%, i.e. unblocked shots ratio)

Over the past 2 season's when Karlsson is on the ice 5 on 5 his team's scoring goes up by about half a goal every 60 minutes (.518). Which is huge. But Subban also has a significant effect, his team gets .471 more goals per 60 minutes 5 on 5 compared to their average, which is almost as much.

The thing with Karlsson though, is that his presence doesn't correlate with his team giving up fewer goals against, defensively Karlsson's minutes are indistinguishable from his teammates. Subban on the other hand, has a massive correlation with reducing opposition scoring, to the tune of .51 fewer goals against per 60 minutes 5 on 5.

As a result, when Subban is on the ice 5 on 5 over the past 2 seasons, his team has 61.3% of the goals scored in his favour, a 10.33% advantage over his team average, while Karlsson is on the ice his team gets 55.3% of the goals in their favour, an advantage of 4.81% over his team average. In shot differential terms its more even but Subban still has the advantage.

Neither player has much of an advantage in usage terms than would significantly skew these results either, both average their use as their team's top pairing puck moving defensemen that play something of a shutdown role but aren't used as heavily on defense as other top shutdown pairings. They play in the same division, so no advantage to either in terms of schedule. And averaging the past two years, neither player's team has been much better than the other on even strength.

Subban pushes result on both the offensive and defensive side of things while Karlsson effectively is only pushing results offensively. Karlsson does appear to have good skills for defense, but it appears that he leverages them to get away with more offensive risks rather than truly suppress opposition scoring. Subban's puck possession style doesn't look as spectacular and doesn't allow him to rack up massive 5 on 5 point totals, but it helps his team be more effective on both sides off the puck, which is what we should actually care about and not point totals.

Karlsson also gets his ice time weighted far more strongly to offensive situations than Subban has over this time. In 2011-12 he spent a disproportionate amount of his ice time with the Senator's best line in Jason Spezza for 40% of his ice-time and much less with the other top nine units, 651 total minutes with Spezza and only 333 minutes with Ottawa's 3rd center Zack Smith .Meanwhile Subban has spent his time equal spread between the Habs top three centers, the most being Plekanec with 612 minutes, 591 with Desharnais and 559 with Eller. The Habs increase in offense with Subban's presence is organic to his influence on the scoring of the team's forwards and not an artifact of skewed minutes.

The trend I think has been for Karlsson's boosters to try and have their cake and eat it too. They point to his huge 5 on 5 scoring totals as a sign of his offensive dominance, and point to watching him play in his own zone to his defensive dominance. But the numbers do not support him being all that effective defensively. If you want to credit him for his defensive effectiveness, you have to acknowledge that he's using it to take more offensive risks than any other defensemen to boost his scoring totals rather than to effectively reduce opposition scoring. He's either the league's best offensive defenseman and purely average on defense or one of the league's many top two-way defensemen, similar to the likes of Subban, Chara, Letang etc. who has been given the most leave to take offensive risks. If he was the amazing force, so far above the field on defense that his boosters claim, simply put his results would have been better than they have been.

The case for Karlsson 5 on 5 is solely on his point scoring. In terms of on ice results Subban has had an at least equal and apparently superior effect on his team's results. His team gets a better boost in shot differential, has been almost equal in offense and much better on defense. Looking at shot data it is easy to see why. Subban's presence causes his team to get more shots for and less against while Karlsson only increases shots for, his shots against does not budge compared to his teammates. Karlsson does have better raw puck possession stats, over the two year period, but that is clearly due to how bad the 2011-12 Habs were at possession. With a good puck possession squad in 2013, Subban's possession became other worldly.

What should be made readily apparent from this is that anyone claiming that Subban is solely a powerplay phenomenon is privileging a single statistic (5 on 5 scoring rates for defenseman) over the balance of evidence we have, which clearly point to dominant 5 on 5 play by Subban.

Stats are calculated from