P.K. Subban’s defensive game, and Team Canada

Updated: November 14, 2013 at 11:20 am by Cam Charron

TSN flashed its projection for the Canadian Olympic roster last night, and while there are players to complain about, as always, when you’re stacking 30 capable players onto a 23-man roster, there’s going to be disagreement. You can quibble with Patrice Bergeron being off the team in favour of Jeff Carter, quibble with Martin St. Louis not making the cut, or quibble with the logic that Chris Kunitz is the only left winger in the world that plays well next to Sidney Crosby.

But the defence is where I have the biggest issue. Currently, TSN has P.K. Subban, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, on the team’s “fifth pairing”, effectively as a bubble player. Why?

We’ve all seen the stat. At 5-on-5 Tuesday night against Tampa Bay, Montreal out-shot the Lightning 17-11 with Subban on the ice, and were outshot 24-3 off of it. This was even mentioned in a column in the Globe and Mail published Thursday morning, in which the writer Sean Gordon projects P.K.’s next contract as “a colossal amount of money” if the Habs finally shell out for a long-term deal.

no other defenceman in the league brings quite the same combination of edge-of-the-seat offensive dynamism, punishing physicality and defensive smarts – the closest analogue is like L.A. Kings’ defenceman Drew Doughty (who signed an eight-year, $56-million contract before the last lockout, which averages to $7- million per season).

One of the traps hockey people get into when they evaluate defensive play, is that often “lack of offence” is conflated with “good defence”. “Good defence”, in actuality, is the prevention of a scoring chance or a goal against, so it’s effectively something that never happened. The problem with Subban is that the edge-of-the-seat offensive dynamism to what Gordon refers to is actually what keeps people from thinking that Subban is an elite defender.

The thing is, the record shows that opponents don’t often generate a lot against him when Subban is playing.

From last year, here’s a list of the top 10 defencemen in the league as far as preventing unblocked shots against on the road. The second column is how those players teammates did without that player.

  FA/20 Tm. FA/20 Diff.
Mark Fayne – NJD 9.1 10.9 -1.8
Henrik Tallinder – NJD 9.3 10.9 -1.6
Andy Greene – NJD 9.5 11.1 -1.6
Jake Muzzin – LAK 9.7 13.0 -3.3
P.K. Subban – MTL 10.1 12.6 -2.5
Marek Zidlicky – NJD 10.1 10.8 -0.7
Kevin Shattenkirk – STL 10.1 11.8 -1.7
Kris Russell – STL 10.2 11.2 -1.0
Anton Stralman – NYR 10.7 13.5 -2.8
Josh Gorges – MTL 10.7 12.8 -2.1

Worth noting this isn’t a rating on the best defencemen in the NHL. It’s simply a record of which defencemen were on the ice for the fewest shots against. Only three New Jersey Devils, and a sheltered fifth defenceman for one of the NHL’s best puck-possession teams, managed to prevent fewer shots than Subban did.

Subban, to be fair, also played some fairly easy minutes last season because his coaching staff trusts him so little. ExtraSkater.com keeps a metric developed by Eric T. called QoC Icetime, which looks at the average amount of ice-time played by the players you match up against. Sorted by forwards, Subban faced the 61st-highest competition last season out of 122 qualified defencemen.

Still, when Subban is out killing penalties, he’s also not allowing too many unblocked shot attempts against. Per the same test (although only data in all 4-on-5 situations is available, not just road. The reason I used road data above is because some buildings undercount or overcount shots), only six defenders, Fayne, Greene, Grant Clitsome, Barret Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo and Roman Polak, saw fewer shots against at 4-on-5.

Sure, there are probably some defencemen that are better than Subban at preventing shots once you adjust for quality of forwards faced and all that fun stuff, but Subban’s offensive game can be described not only as electrifying, but overwhelming as well. He’s third in the NHL in points among defencemen since the start of the 2011-2012 campaign, behind a Swedish and American defenceman.

Put it all together, and you have one of the top possession players in the league. Look at how Habs do in Corsi with Subban on the ice versus without. This is from last year:

You’d expect a Norris Trophy to make most of the players around him better. The Habs Corsi Close % last year was 54.7%, good for 7th in the NHL. Take out Subban, who was on the ice for 34.3% of the shot attempts the Habs took and just 29.4% of the shot attempts they allowed, and the Habs would have been a respectable 52.9%. Less dominant, good for 12th in the league.

The way he plays offence means that he’s prone to the odd gaffe, but you’d rather have a player handle the puck and make the occasional mistake than a player that simply doesn’t know how to handle it. Subban should be a lock for Team Canada and his defensive deficiencies are greatly, greatly overstated.