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2017-18 Player Reviews: P.K. Subban

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

P.K. Subban’s second year with the Nashville Predators was a tremendously productive one. Getting heavy defensive usage and partnered with Alexei Emelin, Subban still managed to produce at his best rate since the season he won the Norris. He was healthy enough to play the whole season—the only skater on the roster who missed no games—and fell just one point short of his career high, leading all Preds defensemen in goals, assists, and points.

It was the kind of season that wows the PHWA, and the Norris buzz had already started again by winter. While he probably won’t win it, Subban did make the ranks of the Norris finalists for the third time in his career.

Season Overview

Subban finished the 2017-18 season with 16 goals, 43 assists, and 59 points, just two short of tying the Predators’ single-season record for points from a defenseman. Peter Laviolette used Subban heavily in the defensive zone this season—37% of his even-strength shifts starting off faceoffs came in the DZ, a career high, while his 28% of faceoff shifts starting in the OZ were the second-lowest of his career—and played him mostly with Emelin, who is not noted for his offensive (or defensive) abilities. The circumstances had some obvious impacts on his playstyle.

Chart comparing P.K. Subban’s stats from the All Three Zones project for 2016-17 and 2017-18. The bars are color-coded from very bad (dark red) to very good (dark blue), with the percent of NHLers the player was better than at that specific thing after the bar.
All Three Zones data: Corey Sznajder/@ShutdownLine. Dataviz: CJ Turtoro/@CJTDevil.

From last season to this season, Subban accomplished less (apart from the end result of goals on the scoreboard) in the offensive zone. I took another look at how his play in the OZ changed here. However, he did get even better at the edge of the Preds’ defensive zone, both at keeping the opponent from getting in and at getting the puck back out safely. The bad news, of course, was that he had to spend a lot of time getting the puck back out, which is never ideal.

What went wrong? Well, he is 29—past what’s statistically likely to be his prime years—but I think there’s an explanation with a solution easier than turning back the clock.

Heatmaps showing the Predators’ OZ performance with Subban in 2017-18, with and without Emelin. In these maps red is good (more shots) and blue is bad (fewer shots).
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

These two heatmaps show the shots the Predators took at 5v5 with Subban this season. The heatmap on the left shows Subban with Emelin, as he spent a majority of the season. You will note that just about the entire slot and most of the rest of the offensive zone is blue, meaning that fewer shots than league average were being taken from there. The one on the right shows Subban without Emelin. It’s still not an offensive frenzy, but there are a lot more signs of life.

The defensive zone is a little more of a mixed bag:

Heatmaps showing the Predators’ DZ performance with Subban in 2017-18, with and without Emelin. In these maps blue is good (fewer shots) and red is bad (more shots).
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

The Predators struggled to clear out the crease all season. It’s tricky to say just looking at heatmaps, which don’t include things like the locations of screening players or the pre-shot passing, whether that clear mid-slot on the left (with Emelin) is better or worse than the activity up in the slot but not immediately around Rinne and Saros on the right (without Emelin).

Overall the difference in Subban’s play with his two primary defense partners, Emelin and Mattias Ekholm, was stark.

With or Without You shot rate map, PK Subban, 2017-18. The black boxes show Subban’s performance with the player whose number is in the box. The blue boxes show Subban’s performance without that player. The red boxes show the player’s performance without Subban.
Micah Blake McCurdy/@IneffectiveMath,

I’ve faded out the rest of the players to make it clearer: Emelin effectively acted as an anchor on Subban all season. Looking at the recognition Subban got for what he accomplished in spite of this, it’s incredibly frustrating to think about what might have been if he’d been able to continue playing with Ekholm this season as he’d done so successfully last year.

Reunited with Ekholm for the postseason, Subban was for the most part the Predators’ best defenseman. While the rest of the defense corps struggled to find the back of the net—Ekholm’s single goal in Game 6 against the Avalanche and Yannick Weber’s spark of false hope in Game 5 against the Jets were the only other goals by defensemen after the end of the regular season—Subban managed to score four times, all in the second round, and added five assists to lead all Preds defensemen in postseason scoring. He did this while also leading all Preds defensemen in shot share and unblocked shot share, while continuing to start a lot of faceoff shifts in the defensive zone.

Best Moment

Subban had a stupendous game at home against the Rangers. He scored a goal, which was very nice, and had a great assist as well, but he also drew three penalties and shut down the Rangers’ offense, finishing the game with a ridiculous 77% shot share and 80% unblocked shot share at even strength—all despite starting only one shift (on the power play) in the offensive zone.

Here’s the goal:

And here’s the assist, which started with Subban beating a Rangers player to the puck at his own blueline and getting it headed back in the right direction even before he took the shot that Colton Sissons tipped:

Worst Moment

For me it has to be the penalty he took in Game 3 against the Jets. The Preds had gotten out to a 3-0 lead, blown the lead, allowed a fourth goal to trail 3-4, and then Filip Forsberg tied it up again early in the third period.

There was hope!

With six minutes left in regulation, Subban took an unnecessary high-sticking penalty on Blake Wheeler, who scored the go-ahead goal a minute later. The Preds would go on to lose the game and ultimately the series.

Grade: B+

I hate to not grade him higher, because he had a really successful season. His postseason performance actually came very close to tipping it into an A– for me, but I’m not sure how much of that was just by comparison to teammates who were struggling.

At the same time, I don’t love the way he got his results. The points were great, but they feel lucky when I compare how and where he played in the offensive zone last year and this year. Defensively, the whole team was unexpectedly bad enough that it felt like a system flaw, but it’s still frustrating to see a Norris finalist who can’t clear out the crease, even if nobody else on the team can either.

For a player in Subban’s position—obviously extremely skilled; two-time All-Star and one-time Norris winner acquired in a blockbuster trade; making $9M against the salary cap for several more years—expectations are very high, and exceeding them is very hard. He did better than I would have expected under the circumstances, and much better than a lot of NHL players would. But that’s what he’s here for.