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The Canadiens Are Having A Good Season, But Trading Subban Was Still A Bad Idea

When the Montreal Canadiens dealt P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber last offseason, it was one of the NHL’s biggest challenge trades in years. Both players play defense, though each represents a different philosophy of how the position should be played — Weber is big and strong and tough and represents more of the old guard of NHL defensemen, while Subban is fast, slick and immensely skilled with the puck, the perfect prototype of the modern NHL defenseman.

As the two blueliners prepare for Thursday’s game, their first head-to-head matchup since the trade, it might be tempting to think Montreal has gotten the better end of the deal. The Habs have a better record and goal differential than the Preds so far in 2016-17, and Weber has provided more individual production than Subban as well.

But although Montreal might have the better hockey team, the Subban-Weber swap still probably made the Habs slightly worse in the long run. Although Weber is very, very good at hockey, a closer look at the numbers shows that Subban is better.

To be clear, Weber isn’t a traffic cone. He has finished in the top five in voting for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which is given to the league’s best defenseman, five times in his career, and he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since his second full NHL season in 2007-08. By any metric, Weber is among the best backliners of his generation. In fact, he’d probably sit at the head of the table at a “Best Defensemen to Never Win a Norris” banquet.

Weber is also having a very productive first season with his new club. He has notched 37 points in 64 games, good for 0.58 points per game — tying his career average. Subban, on the other hand, was injured in mid-December (the nebulous “upper-body injury”) and missed 16 games, so he trails Weber in total points. But Subban’s 30 points in 47 games are good for a pace of 0.64 points per game, also matching his career average. On a rate basis, then, Subban still looks better right now, and that’s without looking at what the two defensemen will be doing two or three (or even six) years down the line.

What will those seasons look like? Major League Baseball has PECOTA1 to project a player’s future performance, but the NHL doesn’t have much in the way of similar projection tools.2 It’s difficult, therefore, to predict when a player might be in his prime seasons. But a study published in 2014 by University of British Columbia professor James Brander examined the effects of age on scoring and plus-minus, concluding that an NHL defenseman peaks at age 29 and generally plays at 90 percent or better of his peak productivity from age 24 to 34.

Subban and Weber’s careers have overlapped for seven full seasons, counting this one.3 Subban was 21 when that stretch began and is 27 now; Weber was 25 at the beginning of the 2010-11 season and is 31 now. If Brander’s assumptions are correct, Subban has not yet reached his peak, while Weber is on the downslope.

According to Brander’s study, Weber has been either at or near his peak for the entire time his career has overlapped with Subban’s, and yet Subban still tops Weber in a number of advanced metrics. For starters, the numbers suggest that Subban is a better possession driver than Weber: During the years they overlapped, Subban’s Corsi for percentage (the proportion of total shot attempts — including misses and blocks — that a team amasses in its games) at 5-on-5 is 52.6 to Weber’s 50.3, according to Corsica Hockey. Relative to teammates at 5-on-5, Subban’s Corsi for percentage is 3.8 points higher than his team’s is when he sits; Weber’s is only 0.1 better. In an era when possession matters as much as it ever has, Subban looks to be the more valuable player.

What’s driving those Corsi numbers? Subban’s teams have taken more shots while he’s on the ice in the past seven seasons than Weber’s teams have; at even strength, Subban-led squads have taken nearly 33 shots for every 60 minutes he’s on the ice while Weber’s teams have taken approximately 31. And despite Weber’s billing as the more conventional, defensive-minded blueliner, Subban’s teams have also allowed fewer even-strength shots per 60 minutes while he’s on the ice than Weber’s have: 29.7 vs. 30. In other words, Subban’s even beating Weber at his own game.

Beyond possession metrics, Subban has a slight edge in points per game over the same stretch, 0.64 to Weber’s 0.62, an advantage that is likely to increase over the next few seasons. Weber is a better shooter than Subban — his career shooting percentage of 8.2 far outpaces Subban’s lifetime mark of 5.9 — and the Montreal defenseman is averaging more time on ice than his Nashville counterpart this season, but these are the only two metrics that could be weaponized against Subban evangelists.

At 31, Weber still passes the eye test as a top defenseman (because he is) and he gives the Canadiens those mythic “tough minutes.” But Subban beats Weber in possession, points and team shooting rates. Subban likely has not peaked, but Weber probably has. On the ice, Nashville remains the clear winner in this trade.

Now, there is one scenario where Nashville ends up the loser in this trade: if Weber retires before the end of his contract.4 Should Weber choose to hang up his skates before the last year of his deal, the Preds would be on the hook for a “cap recapture” fee to the tune of $24.5 million. That represents roughly a third of each team’s entire salary cap this season — needless to say, it would not be great for Nashville. The penalties are less severe if Weber retires earlier, between the ages of 32 and 39, but Nashville will still be crossing its fingers that Weber will stay on the roster till the end of his deal (he’ll be 40 the next time he becomes an unrestricted free agent).

There’s no evidence to suggest that Weber will not play through the end of his deal, though. It’s not uncommon for an NHL defenseman to play till he’s 40, and in Weber’s eleven full seasons, he’s never played less than 54 games.5 Bad things can happen and bodies do break down, but Weber has been an ironman to this point. Even though he doesn’t play for them anymore, Nashville will hope that trend continues.

At the end of the day, both Nashville and Montreal wound up with two of the 10 best defensemen in the NHL. Subban, though, has won a Norris — Weber is still waiting for his first. He might get it under new Habs coach Claude Julien, whose defense-first style of coaching suits Weber’s style of play. But history suggests that as he ages past his prime, Weber’s prestige will fade, even if only slightly. Meanwhile, Subban is probably still getting better. That means the Predators will likely come out ahead in the long run, even if Montreal has the better record so far this season.

Footnotes

  1. PECOTA was developed by FiveThirtyEight’s editor-in-chief, Nate Silver.

  2. The guys at Hockey Prospectus have developed an analogous model called VUKOTA, but it’s proprietary.

  3. Subban’s NHL career technically began during the 2009-10 season, but he only played two games, so according to NHL policy, his rookie season was officially 2010-11. (For what it’s worth, Subban dished out two assists in those first two games.)

  4. Contracts like Weber’s, which is heavily front-loaded and was signed back in 2012, are now illegal under the NHL’s revised salary-cap rules.

  5. He played in all 48 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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