P.K. Subban and comparables


It’s now official: P.K. Subban will miss the Habs’ opening game tomorrow, after he and the team failed to agree to a contract. It’s an unfortunate result that nobody wanted. That’s about as much as we can tell about the disagreement; very little real information has filtered through, though the general belief is that Bergevin is looking for a two-year “bridge” deal like Pacioretty and Price had after their ELCs, and Subban is looking for a long-term contract.

There’s a lot of discussion around what PK is, and what he might be worth. Does he have the potential to be a #1 defenseman? Is he a #1 defenseman right now? Is Michael del Zotto a comparable player, and does his contract represent a workable basis for Subban’s? Where does he sit in the hierarchy of Montreal’s defensemen.

It is my opinion that PK Subban is the Habs’ best defenseman, if not their best skater outright, and a top defenseman in the league. It is my opinion that the comparison with Michael del Zotto is very far off, so much so that his deal offers, at best, a floor value for Subban’s contract.

On the surface, del Zotto and Subban seem comparable. Del Zotto is a year younger. Both made their NHL debut three years ago, though for del Zotto it was a full season whereas Subban only played 2 regular season games and mostly made his reputation in the playoffs. Both are seen as offensive-oriented defensemen. Both have two “full” NHL seasons to their name, del Zotto collecting 41 and 37 points in his, Subban 38 and 36. Similar ages, similar production, same position, same contract, right?

That’s the story the superficial look at the stats tells. But a deeper look into fancystats tells a different story — and it’s a story, really. that careful “watching of the games” would also have revealed.

The Montreal and the New York defenses were actually rather similar in an important way last season. Both were relatively shallow units — and the Rangers’ more than the Habs’. Both ended up relying on a first pairing to do pretty much all the hard heavy lifting against the toughest opposition, often starting in the defensive zone; and the rest of both defenses ended up taking the remaining minutes in a somewhat undifferentiated way. One big difference was that Tortorella trusted his bottom-pairing defensemen so little that the top four or five D-men of his club ended up with a disproportionate number of minutes, whereas the Habs did use three pairings regularly.

Here’s the table retrieved from the venerable, terrifying Gabriel Desjardins’ behindthenet.ca site listing the 5-on-5 fancystats for the Rangers’ regular defensemen, sorted by quality of competition:

RKNAMENUMGPTOI/60Corsi Rel QoCCorsi QoCCorsi RelativeCorsi OnOn-Ice Sh%On-Ice Sv%PDOOZone Start %

Here is the same table for the Canadiens:

RKNAMENUMGPTOI/60Corsi Rel QoCCorsi QoCCorsi RelativeCorsi OnOn-Ice Sh%On-Ice Sv%PDOOZone Start %

The table makes it really easy to see who, on each team, is doing the heavy lifting. On the Habs, it’s no new revelation that this was Gorges-Subban. On the Rangers, it’s equally unsurprising that it was McDonagh-Girardi doing the heavy lifting. No sign of del Zotto on a top pairing.

Directly comparing the lines for the two young defensemen only emphasizes the point. Subban faced first-pairing competition whereas del Zotto’s was more low second pair. Subban’s faceoff ratio was tilted towards the defensive end (46.3%) whereas del Zotto’s tilted offensive (51.3%). Despite this, Subban ended up with superior puck possession, both in absolute and relative terms, than del Zotto. If that weren’t enough, Subban is more versatile; he is a top option on both special teams, including 2:36 minutes a game on one of the league’s best PK units, whereas Michael del Zotto is more a second-tier guy on the PK, playing only 1:23 a game there. Subban is, put simply, a far better player than the Ranger, and as such the two contracts shouldn’t necessarily be comparable.

The Rangers, actually, don’t have a good comparable player to Subban. McDonagh and Girardi are the top-pairing guys at even strength (they play some of the toughest minutes in the NHL, owing to Tortorella’s lopsided player usage) and kill penalties, but do not play significant time on the power play. Better comparables will need to be found elsewhere. I would propose this chart for another team which has a blueline built much like the Habs’ and Blueshirts’: a top pairing taking the heavy minutes and a set of undifferentiated lower defensemen. A team whose top pairing defensemen played both the power play and the penalty kill. Namely, the Nashville Predators:

RKNAMENUMGPTOI/60Corsi Rel QoCCorsi QoCCorsi RelativeCorsi OnOn-Ice Sh%On-Ice Sv%PDOOZone Start %

Note how similar Weber’s and Suter’s statlines are to Subban’s. All three face top opposition at even strength, all three manage to stay mostly possession-neutral on terrible possession teams, all three play significant time on both special teams. Subban is probably not quite at Weber’s and Suter’s level just yet (the Western conference is much stronger than the East, after all), and certainly, being a RFA he does not warrant the same type of big-time contract Weber and Suter recently signed with Nashville and Minnesota respectively. Nevertheless, across all three teams, the two players here that are most comparable in role, and in results, to Subban are Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. In terms of ability and impact, that’s the conversation in which he belongs: he is Shea Weber’s peer far more than he is Michael del Zotto’s.

The inability to sign Subban is perplexing. As the team’s best defenseman, as one of the elite young defensemen in the game, he is probably the team’s most valuable, most impactful player (yes, ahead of Price). Cam Charron wrote an article on the remaining unsigned RFAs with a graph that really drives home the point how well the Habs do when Subban is on the ice… and how much they tend to sink when he is not. This is the kind of player a team should want to lock up long-term, particularly early when the yearly cost might not reflect his ability down the line and the RFA years can be used to cushion the blow of his UFA years. If Subban is willing to sign a decent-value contract for 6 years or more, the Habs would be silly not to jump on it. It’s the same reason the Pacioretty contract is so amazing.

It’s hard to tell without knowing the details of the negotiations exactly why we got to the point we are at. But Subban’s ability means that his dollar value would be relatively high and, assuming Meehan is not being unreasonable (and he has no reason to be), P.K. is a very difficult player to overpay simply because he does so much so well. If the hangup is on the term of the deal, rather than the amount, then that’s a decision that reflects very poorly on the Habs’ general manager.

Bergevin may prefer to keep everyone on his team on a similar contract structure. But Subban is a special player. And it would be to the benefit of the team to treat his contract in a special manner.