Subban Faces Big Expectations With the Devils

When general manager Ray Shero said he was looking to add more talent this offseason, he wasn’t joking around. It started at the Entry Draft when they selected Jack Hughes with the first overall pick. But that’s not all Shero accomplished that weekend. Less than 24 hours later, he acquired defenseman P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators in exchange for Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies, and a couple of draft picks. 

P.K. Subban New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils acquired an All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Expectations will be high for Subban in his first season in New Jersey as the Devils haven’t had a defenseman with his skillset in quite some time. With that said, he’s coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro. So will he be able to live up to what the Devils are asking of him?

Will Subban Rebound?

Subban’s had quite the career up to this point. He’s a three-time NHL All-Star, as well as a three-time Norris Trophy finalist, with him winning the trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2013. He’s totaled 408 points in 645 career games and has earned a reputation as one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. 

However, 2018-19 was not a typical Subban season. He played in 63 games, the lowest total of his career, and finished with 31 points. Not only did his counting totals slip, but his advanced metrics took a big hit, too. He finished with a goals above replacement (GAR) of minus-0.1, as well as a GAR per 60 minutes (GAR/60) of minus-0.029. 

There’s a pretty steep drop off in Subban’s GAR/60 from 2017-18 to 2018-19, the latter of which was the worst of his career since he became a full-time NHLer in 2010-11. The same is true of his wins above replacement (WAR) as he finished with a WAR of 2.3 in 2017-18 but finished at minus-0.1 last season. 

Via Evolving Hockey

So why the decline in Subban’s performance last season? Well, injuries likely played a part. He sustained an upper-body injury in a game against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 13 and did not return until just before New Year’s Eve. It did not look like he was the same player when he returned from the injury, either. He had 12 points in his first 18 games but had just 19 across the remaining 45 games of the season. 

Related: Devils Defense a Work in Progress, But on the Rise

Is that some cause for concern? Maybe. But 2018-19 looks more like a one-off rather than a player’s performance falling off a cliff, given his GAR and WAR were among the NHL’s top 10 for defensemen from 2015-18. He might not return to those levels since he’s 30 years old, but it’d be fair to expect him to bounce back in some capacity.

How He Helps the Devils

On the surface, this seems pretty simple; the Devils’ defense was not any good last season. But it was certain areas of the game they struggled in where Subban excels. The biggest problem the team had was exiting the defensive zone with puck possession. The only two defensemen who did it with any consistency were Will Butcher and Damon Severson, and that’s not good enough in today’s NHL. 

Over the last two seasons, Subban has been one of the better defensemen at possession exits in the NHL. This was especially true in 2017-18 when he was a Norris finalist, but he still did well last season despite not performing to past levels. He’ll also make it more difficult for opponents to enter the Devils’ end with possession, something the team struggled with last season, too. 

Visual from CJ Turturo, data by Corey Sznajder

Another problem for the Devils was their power play. After finishing 10th in the NHL in 2017-18, they finished with the 21st-ranked man advantage last season. A good reason for that was the injuries the team sustained to key players like Taylor Hall. But they also struggled to generate shots and chances at levels that other top power plays did. 

Now with Subban in the fold, they have someone who has plenty of experience as the quarterback of a first power play unit. He’s been one of the top point producers up a man over the last two seasons. And he has a hard shot that can get through traffic, something Butcher struggled with when anchoring the first unit the last two seasons. 

Related: 7 Cool Things About P.K. Subban

If there was one area where the Devils flourished, it was the penalty kill as it ranked fourth in the NHL. It’s not like they need Subban to make it better, but he definitely won’t hurt it. They have one of the best penalty-killing defensemen in the league in Andy Greene, while Pavel Zacha is one of the best penalty-killing forwards. Add Subban’s ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone, and their kill should be able to replicate its success.

Giving the Devils Something They Didn’t Have

Subban was noticeable on almost every one of his shifts in the Devils’ first preseason game against the Boston Bruins on Monday night. If there were concerns about his skating, he helped ease some of them. He was flying around the ice and was leading the rush out of the Devils’ end on numerous occasions.

New Jersey Devils P.K. Subban
New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban should have a big impact in 2019-20. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Subban will play in all situations and will boost a power play that could have some firepower, given their offseason additions. He’s averaged 51 points per 82 games for his career, so expect him to create offense as well. He may not be in his prime anymore, but he’ll still be a top-pair defenseman for the Devils. They haven’t had such a player since Brian Rafalski was with the team over a decade ago. And that might help them get over the edge and into the playoffs. 

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Advanced stats from Evolving Hockey