Devils Need Subban to Bounce Back

The New Jersey Devils’ biggest acquisition last summer was snagging P.K. Subban, who they acquired for two draft picks, Jeremy Davies, and Steven Santini. The hope was Subban would help fix some of the team’s defensive woes. Unfortunately, that’s not how things played out in 2019-20. 

His first campaign with the Devils was, without a doubt, the worst of his career. He had 18 points in 68 games, a 21-point pace over 82 games before the NHL suspended play due to the coronavirus, which would’ve been the lowest of his career. Here’s a look back on his season and what may be in store for him in 2020-21.

Subban’s Precipitous Decline

The Devils didn’t acquire Subban for him to play second fiddle to any other of the team’s defensemen. And it became clear early on they were going to use him as a top-pair defenseman who played in all situations. But in hindsight, there was some reason to be concerned it may not work. 

He got off to a strong start with the Nashville Predators in 2018-19. But he suffered a lower-body injury in November that caused him to miss extended time, and he was never the same when he returned. The result was him having the lowest wins above replacement (WAR) of his career. 

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Given his past results, it was fair to assume he was coming off a down season that was affected by an injury, and he’d be able to rebound going forward. As it turns out, his play took a further decline in 2019-20. His WAR stood at minus-1.8 when play came to a halt, so it looks more like he’s going through an age-related decline rather than having a down season in 2018-19. 

Subban’s career WAR via Evolving Hockey

It’s pretty clear from the chart there’s been a steep dropoff in his play. And it’s obvious from watching him he’s not the same player he once was. He’s missing a step and losing one-on-one battles you’re not used to seeing Subban lose. His offensive and defensive impact were anywhere from league average to well below league average, depending on which stat you look at, too.  

And for someone who was once one of the top, point-producing defensemen in the league, his offensive production sank to career lows in 2019-20. It wasn’t long ago where all these things made him a Norris Trophy finalist, either. So what’s changed in such a short period?

What Needs to Change for Subban

Back in December, on an episode of the 31 Thoughts Podcast with Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek, Friedman mentioned it might be time for Subban to change his offseason training (19 minutes in). For those who don’t know, he spends a lot of the offseason powerlifting. But there’s concern it’s hurting his back, which may be one reason his play has fallen off so sharply. With that said, it may take more than a change in his training habits to get him going. 

In the final games before the suspension of play, he was still logging over 20 minutes of ice time per game. He played over 21 minutes in eight of the Devils’ last 10 contests and was averaging just over 22 minutes of ice time per game for the season. And it was not coming against soft competition, as he was playing on the team’s top pair every night. 

P.K. Subban New Jersey Devils
P.K. Subban and New Jersey Devils will need to make some adjustments to get him going again (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But it’s clear from watching him he’s not cut out to be on the top pair anymore. Does that mean he’s not capable of playing in the top four? The Devils’ defense will likely have a much different look in 2020-21, so it’s hard to say what his role will be for certain. But using him the way they did in 2019-20 probably won’t change his results all that much. The next coaching staff should look to play him in fewer minutes, and in a more offensive role, which seems like the best way for him to maintain a top-four spot. 

Subban’s name will likely come up in trade rumors whenever the NHL offseason begins too. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Devils find a trade partner for a couple of reasons. One is because he has a $9 million cap hit through 2021-22, and it would take a lot of salary retention from the Devils to make a deal work. The second is his value has never been lower, so they’d likely get less in return than what they gave up for him.

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All in all, it was the roughest season of Subban’s career. But the Devils can still get something out of him if they manage his minutes better. If they’re able to make a couple of additions through free agency and the trade market, that should allow him to settle in as a second-pair defender. And who knows, perhaps a new role, defense partner, and coaching staff could give him the jump start he needs to find his game again. 

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WAR Chart from Evolving Hockey