Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
In 76 days, the NHL kicks off the 2019-20 regular season. In commemoration of that, we’re going to talk about the only player in Nashville Predators history to wear the No. 76 jersey, P.K. Subban. It’s also an ideal time to discuss him since the Predators recently traded him to the New Jersey Devils in order to establish the cap space necessary to sign Matt Duchene.
Subban’s Arrival in Nashville
The Predators acquired Subban from the Montreal Canadiens in one of the most memorable trades in recent history, sending captain Shea Weber back. In June 2016, when the trade occurred, Subban had already been a Norris Trophy winner and a two-time all-star. He’d also been a Norris finalist one other time.
He had three 50-point seasons under his belt and was viewed as one of the league’s most dynamic defensemen, regularly taking over games with a blistering slap shot or an accurate outlet pass to spring his teammates on a breakaway. And at 27, he was still in the prime of his career, making the six years and $54 million left on his contract not much of a risk.
Meanwhile, Weber had just completed his age-30 season and had 10 years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $7,857,143. The trade looked like a win for both teams in the immediate years that followed, however, it was almost certain to be a long-term Predators win. Unfortunately, it didn’t develop into that slam-dunk win for the Predators.
Highest Highs: Norris Finalist & All-Star
Subban’s 2016-17 season, his first in Nashville, started off great. He began by posting 14 points in his first 20 games, although he was a minus-seven. However, an upper-body injury in December cost him 16 games and it took him awhile to recover, posting three points in his first 10 games back. In total, he finished with 10 goals and 40 points in 66 regular-season games. Despite the injury, his .75 points-per-game (P/G) rate was still the second-highest of his career.
Related: Subban-Weber Trade Revisited
So considering it was his first season with a new team, it was a pretty good one. It was an even better one when you consider that he and Mattias Ekholm established a dominant defense pair. Subban stepped up his game in the postseason with two goals and 12 points in 22 games. The Predators were great in games in which he scored, going 7-2 in them as the team reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
The next season, 2017-18, Subban was even better, scoring 16 goals and 59 points in 82 games. His 59 points were the second most of his career and his 16 goals set a career high. He finished third on the team in points and tied for eighth among defensemen league-wide. He did that while possessing a 51.6 percent Corsi and starting in the defensive zone 57.5 percent of the time.
He and Ekholm became the team’s shutdown pair and played a big role in the Predators winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time. He was once again strong in the postseason with four goals and nine points in 13 games and a 55.8 percent Corsi. His season concluded with a third-place finish in Norris voting and a spot on the league’s second all-star team. It’s fair to say expectations were high for him entering 2018-19. Unfortunately, the season never lived up to those expectations.
Lowest Lows: Injuries & Disengaged Play
Nothing ever really felt right for the 2018-19 Predators. Sure, they won the Central Division, but they struggled to score goals, their goaltending looked shaky at times, and even their vaunted defense didn’t live up to expectations. The last phrase certainly applies to Subban’s season. In 63 games, he posted nine goals and 31 points, his lowest point total since 2009-10 when he played in two games. His .49 P/G average was his lowest since 2011-12.
His season actually started off great, with 11 points in his first 15 games. However, an upper-body injury suffered on Nov. 13 cost him 19 games. Once again he struggled to bounce back from the injury, with only seven points in his first 20 games back. He eventually found his game, finishing the season off with six points in his final 10 games. He even looked great during that stretch, especially in an April 2 game against the Buffalo Sabres. However, it was still too little too late.
Subban’s struggles fall solely on his own shoulders, too, as Ekholm had the best season of his career with eight goals and 44 points. Subban did continue his uptick in play in the playoffs with three points in six games, but it still didn’t make up for a poor regular season. In total, 2018-19 was the worst season of his career and it ultimately capped off an up and down tenure in Nashville.
A Bittersweet Goodbye
The highs were very high as he established himself as the team’s best defenseman. Unfortunately, the lows were just as low. Injuries cost him at least 16 games in two of his three seasons, an issue is likely to only get worse now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, and there were many stretches in which he looked disinterested and his defensive game was lackluster at best. Furthermore, his down 2018-19 season limited his trade value when the Predators needed it to be as high as possible.
Seeing Subban leave was difficult. I was, and remain, a fan of him. However, that doesn’t mean his departure wasn’t worth it. The Predators needed offense and his cap hit impeded their ability to address that need. So even though they got almost nothing in return, the cap space that was created was enough value for the team.
His Predators tenure will ultimately be defined by what happens in the future: Does Duchene push the Predators over the edge? How much of a boost does Subban give the Devils? And will the Predators receive any value from the assets they received from the Devils? Regardless of what happens, Subban was a good soldier who played the role asked of him. It’s unfortunate, but we must close the book on his tenure and move forward.