Return of Subban Shows What’s Wrong with Canadiens

It’s misleading to say the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators are going in opposite directions and that the divergence traces back to the P.K. Subban trade.

Canadiens vs. Predators

Sure, when the Canadiens host the Predators Saturday night at the Bell Centre, the visitors will be heading in with the best record in the Central Division, while the Canadiens languish at the bottom of the standings. But the Habs had been coming off a similarly disastrous season when they dealt the Norris Memorial Trophy-winning defenseman in the first place.

P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban – (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Whether or not the deal was meant to scapegoat Subban is unclear, but the move did what it was supposed to, at least temporarily: position the Canadiens to rebound and win the Atlantic Division in 2016-17. The Predators conversely finished in the second wild-card spot, albeit relatively comfortably.

It was at that point that many Habs fans who had been proponents of the trade seemed to declare victory for the Canadiens. Of course, those that did seemed to forget two key elements:

  • In acquiring a player who was four years younger, the Predators were more playing the long game here.
  • Subban had been injured for a big chunk of the season; Upon his return, the Predators went 20-12-5 the rest of the way playing in a tougher conference (a ~100-point pace; the Habs went 20-13-3 over that same stretch for the record).

That’s to say nothing of the Predators’ playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final that ensued, during which, according to the stats, Subban dominated (at both ends of the ice). All the while, the Habs, who had gotten unceremoniously and embarrassingly eliminated in Round 1, were left to wonder what had gone wrong.

Subban vs. Weber

No one outside of the organization can know for sure. Even Subban doesn’t know why he was traded. Many theorize it was because Subban started thinking he was bigger than the team. Regardless, the mistakes arguably predate the trade, back to the point at which the Canadiens made a conscious decision that goalie Carey Price was the team instead, that they would live and die with their goaltending, despite goaltending being the one position that doesn’t put points on the board.

The trade for Weber can be seen as an attempt to better insulate Price, after all. I mean, Weber, for all his faults (mainly his age), is one of the best at helping to keep the puck out of his net. He’s not too shabby in the offensive zone on the power play either. Nevertheless, if you look at the advanced stats, they all seemed to indicate the obvious: the Canadiens got fleeced.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber – (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

So, in short, it’s not that they decided to trade Subban for Weber. It’s the point at which they adopted the philosophy that dictated that they needed to trade him at all. That’s when it really went belly up. Just really, really, slowly. One can only hope it only takes just as long of a time to fix the mess.

While Subban will undeniably get his fair share of attention by fans tomorrow night, they’d do well to look at the Predators as a whole instead. If only the Habs could learn to embrace the same model, which coincidentally features a goalie, who just a few years ago had been struggling with similar issues as Price now.

Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price
Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price – (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)

It’s fair to say Pekka Rinne, now 35, has rebounded from his struggles that dropped him to a career-low save percentage of .902 in 2013-14. Price’s is just one above his career-low of .905 as we speak. If Rinne, at 35, can post one of .926, there’s no reason why Price can’t get back to that level, himself. It really is a matter of insulating him. Just properly.

Offense in Defense

There is some hope, in other words. The trick is in assessing how the teams truly differ from one another. And it starts and ends on the back-end. Nashville’s features a mobile corps of Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm.

Looking at the Predators’ entire defense, their rearguards have scored 128 points in 313 games (.41 points per game). Subban currently leads them all, and the team as a whole, with 43 points, including a career-high-tying 15 goals. In sharp contrast, the Canadiens’ own only one legitimately NHL-caliber puck-moving defenseman in Jeff Petry, with just 82 points in 307 games (.27) coming from the blue line.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry – (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

For the sheer sake of comparison, the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning’s defense has 112 points in 350 games (.32). The second-place, expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights’ no-name defense has 123 points in 316 games (.39). The last-place Arizona Coyotes’ has 94 in 307 (.31). The second-to-last-place Buffalo Sabres’ has 65 in 298 (.22). So, there is at least some correlation there.

Getting Back on Track

The question is, is the Habs’ low-scoring defense symptomatic of a low-scoring team in general or the other way around. It’s actually been established that, at least with regard to captain Max Pacioretty, who’s been struggling offensively all year and has consistently hit 30 goals but is on pace for just 25, that it’s in fact the defense that drives the offense.

The Habs’ in particular is an admittedly patchwork defense, one that underwent a serious “underhaul” last summer, with no single defenseman on the left side coming back. Many of those were puck-movers. Still, general manager Marc Bergevin had faith, going on record as saying the team’s defense was “better than last season.”

For the record, last year’s defense had 168 points 490 games (.34). So, at least from an offensive standpoint, it isn’t. Considering last year’s defense also gave up the fourth-least amount of goals in the league, it isn’t defensively speaking either (eighth-most). So, unless Bergevin was lying, it speaks to a huge disconnect between what he believes will be successful and what actually is. Neither should be a surprise.

It’s never been firmly established when exactly the decision was made to trade P.K. Subban (the timelines is quite fuzzy, based on recent reports). However, one has to hope, if it hasn’t happened yet, that the team acknowledging they actually need him comes as soon possible. Perhaps as soon as tonight. And if he so happens to establish a new career high in goals, power to him. This is one instance that everyone, Subban fans and haters, should be cheering for the Predators.