July 19, 2016

A tale of two defensemen

We’ve finally reached that point in the post-trade dialog where people are finally comparing players. That took long enough. The outrage over Subban being traded (which vastly outweighs the talk about Weber being traded) had died down enough so that people can get down to cases.

Shea Weber versus PK Subban will be one of those trades that will define both Nashville and Montreal for years to come. Books will be written about it, TV shows will be produced about it, and discussions about it will last for potentially decades. And it’s not all about the caliber of the players involved, either, but the team politics in Montreal.

However, purely from a statistical perspective, Weber and Subban are fairly comparable except in one are: possession. Subban last season had much better possession numbers than Weber did, but Weber had more goals. And you also have to take into consideration that Weber was on a better team.

The issue isn’t actually statistics, though. The issue is actually preference in style of play. And that is also colored by what you might think of the players themselves.

Defensemen are weird in that most people tend to ignore the position – at least until someone makes a mistake. So a lot of people don’t have a great grasp as to what makes a great defenseman. They know what makes a great forward (scoring and playmaking), and they know what makes a good goalie (stopping pucks), but defensemen…?

There really are no statistics specifically for defensemen. Plus-minus comes close, but that’s only for even strength. Corsi, supposedly, is an adjusted plus-minus – but I’m not entirely convinced it’s calculated the right way and it was really intended for goaltending, anyways. I could probably come up with something that’s more suitable and specific to defensemen, but I’m not sure I really want to bother.

In regards to touching the puck and / or possession, that’s all guesswork. I’ve tracked sports statistics before, and while most of the time you catch most things, being human you don’t catch everything. So until the NHL institutes some technology changes, that’s not going to be entirely accurate, either. Especially since home team bias creeps into statistics tracking.

So, essentially, there’s no adequate way to determine how good a defenseman is at his position right now. And because of this, people determine how good a defenseman is in three ways: points, hits, and blocked shots. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Because everyone’s so focused on forwards and scoring, points is the biggest determination of what makes a good defenseman. Almost gone from the NHL is the “stay-at-home” defenseman type of player, who only touched the puck to clear it out of their defensive zone or to keep it in the offensive zone. Bottom pairing guys might still play that way, but that’s why they’re bottom pair guys.

So if you can set up plays (including that crucial first pass out of your own zone), rack up the assists, and score a few goals (might want to work on your shot a bit), then you’re considered a top defenseman. Seriously. That’s all there is to it. You don’t even have to be all that great defensively, which is sad but true. You might turnover the puck a lot in the neutral zone, but all can be forgiven if you consistently score or set up goals. (**cough cough** ...Mike Green.... **cough cough**)

This is almost entirely why both Weber and Subban are considered elite defensemen; they’re both scorers and playmakers.

The difference between them, comes down to hits and blocked shots. Subban might throw the occasional big hit, but Weber does that all the time. And that’s a big reason why some people prefer Weber over Subban. They see hitting as being tough, gritty, and being into the game. Which isn’t true at all, but that’s the perception – and is why some think Weber is better than Subban.

In shot blocking, too, Weber has the edge on Subban. Subban’s not afraid to block shots, but Weber does it more often. That might have been due to the teams each played on – we won’t know that for sure until the next season starts – but that adds to the tough-gritty-leadership perception.

(Random note: I really hate the term "eye-test".)

Weber playing that way, though, shortens his hockey career and slows him down faster. The more physical abuse a guy takes, the shorter his career tends to be. It’s not a perfect correlation, of course, since Chris Chelios played for a very long time and he was a physical player. But generally speaking, if you want to lengthen your hockey career, consistent overly physical play isn’t the way to go about doing that.

Partly because of that, but also because of his size and perhaps his age, Weber isn’t as quick as Subban is. In that way, Subban definitely has the edge. And in today’s NHL, the quicker you are the better. The better teams in the league want fast players, no matter what position they play. Going out of your way to make a hit just for the sake of hitting puts you out of position and often out of the play.

The biggest thing to take into consideration between the two is their age and how long they should play. Weber, as mentioned above, being more physical will likely have a shorter career. And as he’ll be 31 years old when the season starts, he’s looking the downside of his NHL career right in the face. His level of play might not decline significantly for another couple of years, or it could decline this year; you just don’t know.

Subban, however, is only 27. In the NHL, that’s just starting the peak performance years. Well, I think so, anyways. A lot of people seem to think defensemen peak earlier, but I don’t agree. Late 20s to early 30s seems to be when defensemen are the most productive to me. Then again, most are also judging them by the standards they have for forwards, too.

Perhaps if this were the NHL before the last lockout, Weber would be better suited for the NHL than Subban overall. But, again, the better teams of the NHL have gotten where they are partly due to very mobile defensemen who are quick on their feet and can make plays, join the rush, and score goals in their own right. (And play defense well in their own end, too.) Weber just isn’t that mobile, and he isn’t that quick. He’s still a very good defenseman who’s very strong positionally, don’t get me wrong, but skating isn’t what he’s known for.

And, ultimately, foot speed is such a priority for the better teams in the NHL, that that's really the determining factor in this trade. (Age would probably be a close second.) If you can't skate, then the top teams in the league aren't going to want you. Weber might be better than Subban in many areas, but he probably couldn't out-skate Subban.

Try to imagine Weber in Pittsburgh or San Jose or Tampa Bay, and then try to imagine Subban on any of those teams, and then get back to me.

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