Is PK Subban really any “risker” than any of his contemporaries?

Image via Jean Levac

By now you’re all well aware of the narratives surrounding Mike Babcock, P.K. Subban, and Team Canada’s personnel decisions. And let’s face it, there was going to be controversy surrounding them no matter which players were scratched and which were dressed. We Canadians panic a lot about small things like this. It’s just what we do. 

But at the same time, the reigning Norris Trophy winner as last year’s consensus best defenseman in the known universe was scratched yesterday in favour of three inglorious minutes from Dan Hamhuis, as Canada just barely squeaked by a Finnish team that’s probably not even as deep as the Buffalo Sabres by a 2-1 score in overtime.

It’s not exactly a stretch to say that they probably could’ve used the services of one Pernell Karl..

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Offense was at a premium yesterday, and while Canada’s possession numbers show that they were pretty clearly the better team and would crush an 82-game season, single elimination tournament play leaves you a razor-thin margin of error. You can’t afford to be playing too many tight-checking, close games because the fewer goals you score, the greater chance there is for a single unlucky bounce to knock you out of the tournament. 

Logically then, you should want one of your most talented players – and arguably the second best offensive defenseman in the world – in the lineup to tip the scales in your favour just that much more. Unfortunately, this probably won’t be happening any time soon:

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We all know what P.K. Subban can do on offense. He leads all NHL defensemen in scoring over the past two seasons, and is an elite shot generator on the powerplay. The fact that he’s better in the offensive zone than most everybody on Canada’s defense isn’t really up for debate. 

Instead, the issue with P.K. Subban seems to be trust, or a lack thereof from Lindy Ruff and Mike Babcock. “He’s too risky in his own zone,” the pundits say. “He has far too many giveaways!” The thing is, this sentiment is completely wrong. It’s garbage. There is not a shred of valid evidence to support this opinion. 

In fact, P.K. Subban stacks up as one of Canada’s very best defensive blueliners, both at even strength and on the penalty kill, and far more proficient defensively than not only Jay Bouwmeester and Dan Hamhuis, but Duncan Keith and to a lesser extent Shea Weber as well. First off, let’s establish a little context to keep in mind in terms of how each Canadian defenseman is deployed by his NHL team:

Canadian D Deployment

As opposed to the usual O-Zone Start% metric we use when looking at deployment patterns, this chart shows the true proportion of offensive zone starts and defensive zone starts each player has seen over the last 3 years. The upper left hand quadrant indicates a player is starting many of his shifts in the defensive zone and few in the offensive zone, whereas the lower right quadrant is the opposite.

As this is the case, we’d expect to see players in the lower right hand quadrant (mainly Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty) have a larger net positive effect on possession than guys buried in the defensive zone (Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Hamhuis) because they’re in a better position and therefore more likely to register the next shot attempt than they are to give it up. However, this isn’t necessarily what we observe:

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CDN D Fenwick

In this chart, we’re looking for a big blue bar pointing up (meaning that the player’s team controls a larger portion of total shot attempts when this player is on the ice), a big red bar pointing up (meaning that teammates get more shot attempts when this player is on the ice), and a big green bar pointing down (meaning that opponents get fewer shot attempts when this player is on the ice). Of all the defensemen selected to team Canada, P.K. Subban not only has the biggest positive effect on his team’s offense, but the biggest positive effect on his team’s defense too. 

Interestingly, the Chicago Blackhawks have yielded a ton more shots against with Duncan Keith on the ice. I’m hesitant to label this a deployment thing because of what we looked at in terms of zone starts, or a Quality of Competition thing because Joel Quenneville has increasingly relied on Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya to handle tough assignments, and Quality of Competition as we usually measure it doesn’t really have a significant impact on long-run results

This would seem to indicate that of all the Canadian defensemen, Duncan Keith is the least defensively reliable player, which is surprising to say the least. This sentiment is further reflected when just looking at raw Fenwick against numbers:

Raw FenAgainst

P.K. Subban once again stacks up nicely. Despite playing for a woeful Montreal Canadiens team, opposing players have been able to manufacture extremely few shot attempts against him over the past handful of seasons; only Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo have been stingier. 

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Duncan Keith on the other hand gives up more shot attempts than anyone outside of Shea Weber (who is buried in his own zone by Barry Trotz) and Jay Bouwmeester (whose time in Calgary is included at the very beginning of this sample). This isn’t limited to 5-on-5 either, as Keith has struggled immensely to kill penalties as well.

Between 2011 and 2013, there were 100 defensemen in the NHL that spent 300 or more minutes on the penalty kill. Of these 100, Keith was 94th in shots against per 20 minutes of ice time, giving up nearly 2.6 more shots per 20 minutes than an average player in this group. Not surprisingly, Chicago’s penalty kill suffered, toiling in the bottom-5 in the NHL in both shots allowed and PK%. That is, until Joel Quenneville switched to the Hjalmarsson/Oduya pairing as the lead PK unit in 2012-13. The Swedish pair put together a monster season, ranking among the NHL’s top shot preventers. As a result, Chicago cut their shots against by nearly 20%, and finished 3rd in the NHL in PK%.

By contrast, P.K. Subban was 9th in the NHL in PK SA/20 over the same time, and has been one of the league’s elite penalty killers for years:


The graph means that opposing teams generate around two fewer shots per 20 minutes when P.K. Subban is on the ice killing a penalty compared to when he’s on the bench, or about 24% fewer shots against P.K. Subban than they do against Duncan Keith. Once again, P.K. Subban is not a defensive liability.

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The Conclusion

First of all, there are no bad players on Team Canada. Every single one of these players has elite strengths, and I could only really see an argument that Jay Bouwmeester doesn’t belong on the team. That being said, the evidence points to P.K. Subban being Canada’s best offensive weapon from the blueline, and probably the second best defender behind Alex Pietrangelo too. 

The argument that he’s “risky” or untrustworthy is fueled mainly by biases and misconceptions about what “good defense” is. When Subban is on the ice, he’s more likely to get a chance to score the next goal than he is to give it up, which is basically all that matters in this discussion.

At the end of the day, the drop off in defensive ability from Subban to Keith is marginal in small samples, as is the drop-off in offensive ability between Subban and Bouwmeester. We’re talking like maybe one shot per game. This adds up over a long season, but keeping Subban out of the lineup isn’t going to make-or-break Canada’s chances to win the gold medal.

With that in mind, it’s still reasonable to say that scratching Subban is poor decision making, as you’re incurring the opportunity cost of not having a super-elite blueliner in your lineup, instead replacing him with a good-to-very-good one. And in doing that, Mike Babcock and Lindy Ruff are incurring more risk of losing a tight game than P.K. Subban has ever carried.

You can get on the coaching staff for not icing the best lineup possible while still liking the team’s chances to win it all, because.. CANADA!

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  • beloch

    I hate to be the guy who brings this up but could it possibly be a race thing with Subban. For me its easier to notice Subban on the ice as he stands out. Therefore it is easier to notice him when he pinches in and makes a mistake.

        • Mantastic

          So you’re accusing Hockey Canada of institutional racism? I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, but Nolan’s case is pretty old, and Canadian hockey teams have a pretty good record of using good players like Jarome Iginla and Paul Kariya, not to mention the players that show up on the WJC teams.

          I just don’t see the “don’t play the black guy” card being played. It’s well, well, WELL documented that Canada is RD-heavy.

          It just baffles me how people can just throw accusations around.

          • jake the rake

            Actually by comparing the experiences of Iginla and Subban we can understand in more detail how exactly institutional racism works with Hockey Canada – and we can learn something about national identity and race in Canada in general. Iginla has long been praised for playing and acting in ways that are consistent with the idea of the ‘good Canadian’: consistent, hard-working, even-tempered, never getting too worked up, just bucking down and getting the job done. Subban’s occasional mistakes on the ice (he doesn’t actually make more than the other elite players, but they get seized on more in the media) are singled out in dramatic fashion and written into a story about how his emotions are excessive. Therrien banning his handshake with Price, Cherry scolding him for his goal celebration in Ottawa, and so on; Subban shows too much enthusiasm for the ‘good Canadian’ way. This becomes a way to dramatize any evidence that he might sometimes make a mistake. I suspect Babcock and Hockey Canada in general realize deep down that Subban is their best defenceman (Babcock said himself something like “it’s amazing the things he can do on the ice”), but are committed to keeping him out of the lineup because it would risk disrupting the team’s national-identity mission – if this black player took centre stage, with his amazing play at both ends of the ice and the possibility of emotional displays that don’t conform to the ‘good Canadian’ ideal. I don’t know if Babcock realizes he is being racist in this way – he may have some training in psychology but he shows few signs of thinking critically about his own issues.

          • pheenster

            It’s not Hockey Canada — it’s hockey culture more generally. You can’t all of a sudden forget all of the different ways in which Subban (and Evander Kane for that matter) get trashed for all manner of things — the way they celebrate (too much!) the risky plays on the ice (too flashy!), the lifestyle off the ice (too thuggy!) and so on. I think it was Darren Pang a couple of years ago whose Freudian slip was that Subban needed to learn how to play “the white way”.

            I actually don’t have a problem with Subban sitting in favor of most of the others (maybe not Bouwmeester) but I do have a problem with him getting labeled in a way that I think is simply not accurate. We see all kinds of players make all kinds of risky plays (Bieksa is a “swashbuckler”, Jovanovksi was a gambler) who don’t get tarred with the same brush. It’s asinine to think that race doesn’t enter into hockey or pro sports; I think here it’s more the very conservative culture in some hockey circles that’s at fault though, the same inane logic that ships off a 19-year-old party boy (Seguin) despite his clear talent and general good performance.

    • Mantastic

      I think you might be hitting the nail with that one. PK is very noticeable on the ice. Not only because of his darker skin pigmentation but because of his skating style which is very different from most NHL skaters.

  • argoleas

    I am a Habs fan but I have come to the conclusion that it may be better for PK to sit out these games.
    I can’t imagine if Canada loses any of these upcoming elimination games with PK in the lineup.
    I’m afraid the backlash would be focused on him.
    If Canada wins without him, he still would be the beneficiary of a Gold medal.
    I think your article is refreshing as for once it talks about facts and not perceptions.
    I really wish Babcock would read this, so, you know, he might get the facts right.

    • Peachy

      It’s so unfortunate because Babcock otherwise appears to be a coach who makes informed decisions. Surely he has similar data.

      Dunno, echoing others, I think Subban, Kane, Byfuglien, etc are victims of racial perceptions. It’s not a discussion that Canadians are used to having, but I think we need to start having it.

      By the way Rhys, the best offensive defensemen in the world had better be Karlsson or I’ll stop reading your awesome posts. (I kid. Kinda.)

    • Mantastic

      I cant beleive what i have read this is so a dumb suis de MTL aussi et cest vmt stupide ce que tu viens de dire…Si je comprend, il doit sassoir pcq il a des chance de creer une guerre raciale?

  • pheenster

    Trying to convince Canadians that Subban is a better defenseman than Keith is like trying to convince a bunch of Catholics that the Pope isn’t celibate. You’re most likely right, but no one is going to believe you.

  • pheenster

    Great post, really well done.

    On a sidenote, I’m trying to determine Subbans percentage of shot attempts the Habs take whens hes on the ice and the amount the opposition is allowed. How do I determine this?

  • argoleas

    I have read the notes here on the question of racism, and I believe this conversation will continue. One aspect that I think may be influencing these observation is simply the lack of actual diversity in the sport, so the sample size is too small to make sweeping conclusions. However, you give me Subban, and I will raise you Iginla, who the brain trust had no problems selecting the previous 3 Olympics. It seems to me that there are many in the league that just don’t trust him, that maybe he goes rogue too often.

    Simple fact is that the current team trust is the one we got, and they have made several choices I don’t agree with. But the goal is the same: win the gold. If they win, no one will care. Should they fail…

  • Peachy

    I’m aprreciate the amount of work put into this but the Fenwick stats may be flawed to say the least. It’s really not sufficient to compare dman without context. Did you consider the amount of time Subban has on the PP and lack of on the penalty kill? The difference is that the other dmen actually kill penalties while Subban has top2 PP TOI/G for the past two seasons.

  • Mantastic

    c’mon people. look at what Babcock has been saying since they were making the roster. he wanted RH D playing RD and LH D playing LD. look at our RD options!!!! Doughty, Weber and Pietrangelo!!!!! Who are you going to sit in place of PK?? our LD options were way worse, all things considered and that is why you see Hamhuis as our 7th D. the only time you saw him on the ice was subbing for Keith on DZ draws… or Jaybo/Vlasic once.

    this is clearly the obvious reason why PK is sitting, which hand he shoots with and the options he is against.

    • Mantastic

      where are the stats for untimely bonehead penalties?

      seem to remember watching this happen more than once this season.. PK takes a marginal penalty at a crucial point in the game costing his team points.

      maybe coaches take more than stats into the equation?

  • Mantastic

    I agree with the LH vs RH statements… Thats how Babcock’s style is. So use the best folks on those sides..

    IMO, it should be Doughty, Webber, and Subban.
    On the other side Vlasic, Hamhuis, and either Keith/Bouwmeester.

    I think Bouwmeester while a good skater has no offensive upside over Keith and in a one game takes all scenario, I want to score goals to Keith it is.

    Bouwmeester and Peiterangelo are the odd men out. I know there is familiarity with them, but there also is with Webber/Hamhuis and Doughty/Keith in past team canadas…

  • Mantastic

    Ok, so who comes out of the lineup? Babcock has already said they aren’t putting players on their off-side so that removes any LD from leaving the lineup. Can’t take away Doughty’s ice time nor Weber’s so that leaves Pietrangelo who many Habs fans have said to replace. But according to everything above, that would be the worst choice to replace because he the the most sound defensively.

    So where does Subban go? Whose minutes does he take?

    • Mantastic

      Nutshell, meet argument.

      I agree with what you say, and as much as I like Hamhuis, he’s clearly the 4th LD. I’m happy with the defense as it is. If anything the player I’d like scratched is Kunitz. That man should not be on the ice.

  • Mantastic

    Regarding your statement…

    “He’s too risky in his own zone,” the pundits say. “He has far too many giveaways!” The thing is, this sentiment is completely wrong. It’s garbage. There is not a shred of valid evidence to support this opinion.

    Sorry but Subban has near the top of league for giveaways (GvA stats on for the past few years for defensemen and forwards. There’s a reason he’s sitting and I think Babcock has a good handle on the situation. The idea that Subban is better than Keith defensively is laughable. I can’t believe you would even suggest that Subban as one of the leagues “elite penalty killers”. He barely plays on the penalty kill.

  • Mantastic

    Michel Therrien has kept Subban off the pk. Before that we played min 2min per night on the pk and was amazing. Check his stats from before Michel Therrien.

  • Mantastic

    By sitting the Norris and the Hart trophy winners the direction of team Canada are playing their future with this team, note they probably don’t care since it’s probably the last olympics for the NHL players.

    Personally, I would rather say in case of a lost of the gold medal, “we played the best we had” instead of “We should have played the hart and the Norris winners”

  • Mantastic

    I think a lot of PK Subban supporters would be happy enough seeing him dressed as the seventh defenceman getting some time on the power play and to take a shift here and there for the other guys.
    My personal opinion is the problem is with the philosophy of the head coach. You’re willing to sit the player voted the best defenceman in the NHL because he is right handed when they have a clear lack of good options on the left side. Its almost embarrassing to need to dress two of Bouwmeester, Hamhuis and Vlasic. The large ice isn’t even an issue as Subban is one of (maybe) the three best skating defencemen in the league.
    For a team that can’t score goals, maybe its time to insert a little Subban into the line up?

  • Mantastic

    I don’t say you’re wrong. But don’t forget that even tho you are saying theses fact well proven, you can’t predict the players with statistic. You can globally recognise that they or he is a good or bad player but don’t base your fact only by these charts. Don’t mistaken me but you are not the Team Canada coach nor anything near that (not an insult). You didn’t see what is the chemestry on the ice with the other player or how did he perform on the try-outs. And to let you understand this think a bit like the moneyball movie. They had a great season by only picking up players with good statistics but at the end they didn’t won the Championship. I do think he deserves to be on the top 7 D and i do agree with you that they shall put him on the ice for Latvia game, but lets stop always making contreversy and let the coaches coach and the players play their sport. We shall support them no matter what who is playing. If we loses in semi-finals or finals then we shall criticize some of the decisions by Team Canada but until nothing is done we can’t say something.

  • pheenster

    I watch PK play every game in Montreal. The guy is a offensive beast. He has been racking up the points like mad this year.

    His defense has a few weak spots but they are outshined by his physical play.

    Listen it is no secret that Mike Babcock has a soft spot for a certain type of player. He has come out in the past and publicly ridiculed players based on where they come from and play. Look at what he said about Setagoutchi?

    I find it a shame we even have this guy representing Canada.

    Anyway there is nothing we can do about it. But as i sit here and watch Team Canada struggling to find offence in a game against Latvia and allowing a early goal. I really think PK could have brought some diversity to this team and some much needed grit where it counts.

    I am a die hard Habs fan. I am a PK subban fan. I watch every night people in the crowd boo PK. Announcers being bias against him. Other players singling him out. It is messed up, but sometimes i think it is all based on race. Sometimes i wonder if it would be different if the man wearing that jersey was white.

    It is pretty sad. That said i question a lot of Team Canada’s choices for Sochi. I think they went with a typical “Canada” team and could have chose better Athletes in general. Tons of these guys do not deserve to be there.

  • Mantastic

    Paul and whynotpk,

    Let’s take your Premise and extend it. Pk is Black. Vast majority of the others players are white.

    Why is it unusual to see a black hockey player?

  • pheenster

    I think it is a joke, I watch PK play play against Toronto/Ottawa and out hustle, out score any shank dman Team Canada has. The guys work ethic in both ends is #1 in the league bar non! He is a killer and game changer.

    I am not even a habs fan and i loath when we play them just because PK is so damn good. The guy can single handedly lift his team with a few plays. He seems to chip in every where it matters. Offence, defence, physically destroying other players, playing mind games with em. The dude is amazing and i would welcome him on my team any day of the week.

    Sure he has some mistakes every now and then but it is rare and it happens no more then the other guys on team Canada.

    I’m stumped on what the heck they are doing in Sochi. Way to kill his confidence as player! I mean how the heck can they justify playing those shank dmen before pk? Not one of them is as good as him.

    I think something is up. Not sure if its race or some kinda personal problems between him and the bench guys, but this is not very good for team Canada. It is kinda leaving a black eye on the management(No pun intended). Even if its not about race, It is a stupid idiotic move to not play one of the most feared and best dmen in the game! I have no idea what they are thinking.

  • Mantastic

    People people you seem to Forget something. PK is Still young but like to display some sort of Poster Boy attitude and Babcock and the rest dislike that very much. All the triple low fives and such.

    It seems only Julien is able to see the talent behind that attitude

    the blues, the hawks, the Kings are power houses
    (Jay-Alex/ Duncan/ Drew)

    So it is easier to look good as a d-man when you play for those teams

    Only Weber and Subban needs to be at their top to give a legitimate chance to their team to win.

    And it baffles me how the coaching staff does not see this, does not seem to have that data.

    And look, the art ross winner… St-Louis ignored also… so that means that in their minds if last season was 82 games PK would not be Norris and St-Louis would not be Art Ross

    On the big ice you want speed-strenght and scoring

    For me Kane is a no brainer but again poster boy attitude

    Is it a racial thing ? Yes and No
    Is it a good thing to put them aside… I don’t think so
    It is sad but if Babcock had Kane and Subban, the Wings would Still be a powerhouse and they would play top minutes for Canada

    Anyway for me the best d-man are Weber and Subban knowing what they must do with the teams they play in to give them a winning chance

  • Mantastic

    If Steve Yzerman, Babcock or Ken Holland had Vlasic, Hamius or even Bowmister on their NHL clubs, would they trade them away to aquire Subban? I bet any one of those hockey execs would do that trade in a heart beat. Bunch of hypocrites when it comes to comparing Subban to his peers.

  • Acumen

    Doing a side-by-side advanced stats analysis of Doughty and Subban from Juniors to now, one finds the differences in their numbers to be more or less negligible, save for Doughty’s abarration of a season back in 2009-10. They also have nearly the same build, comparable styles, were born the same year, and are both cocky/exuberant types.

    Doughty is my favorite player, but Subban is every bit as good straight across the board. Subban simply hasn’t been given the opportunity to shine on the stages that Doughty has, though he does seem to step his game up in the same way when he has. That’s the only thing that *clearly* separates them that I can find.

    Honestly, I think that the way the two of them are perceived, and the way Subban has been underrated going back to his draft year (Thomas Hickey at #4!??!?), are indicators of the undercurrents of racism in the league, and maybe the sport in general. It sucks, a lot, but I think there’s a very good chance that it’s the reason behind the marked difference in perceptions.

  • jake the rake

    I am a Toronto Maple Leaf fan which is also code for the Habs are my least favorite team.

    Phil Kessel is our PK

    It was embarrassing for me as a Canadian for team Canada not to play PK, the Norris trophy winner. For everybody who has played the game they know that PK is a stud defensively. He scares the crap out of the opposing forwards because they know he could he has the ability to hurt them with his physical play at any time of the game. If you watch him play he takes time and space away from skilled offensive players constantly in the defensive zone.

    I don’t even need to speak about his offensive game…

    PK is the most exciting player the habs have had since Guy Lafleur.

    Canada had a opportunity to show why we are ahead of the world in diversity, by having a dark black man dominate hockey, and we blew-it!
    As much as I loved Jerome Iginla and what he represented for diversity in hockey PK’s complexion will do so much more to grow the game.

    The NHL say they are in the Olympics to grow the game globally and they had PK their for the world to see and Canada blew-it.

    The truth is, PK plays the game like Paul Coffee, and has the personality of Brett Hull.

    I do believe that hockey Canada wants to diversify the game, but at the same time there scared of loosing there game to guys that don’t look and talk like them.

    of the top five team sports hockey,baseball,football,basketball and soccer hockey has done the worst job in diversifying there game.