With just a couple of weeks left until the June 1st deadline for signing 2013 drafted prospects, the Canucks finally agreed to terms with high-scoring defensive prospect Jordan Subban, ending much hand-wringing in Canucks nation. Subban is one of Vancouver’s better prospects and even though he hasn’t shown explosive development in terms of his counting stats, he has steadily grown into a better and better NHL prospect during his time in the OHL.
We’re fans of Subban, and while we’re under no illusion that he’ll come close to being a Norris trophy contender let alone a cornerstone piece of the Canucks, we think he’s capable of carving out a prosperous NHL career for himself and becoming one of Vancouver’s most successful 4th round picks in recent history.
Read past the jump as we have a look at Subban’s junior career and try and forecast what the future holds.
Since we profiled him over the summer, Subban has added 10 lbs to his 5’9 frame, now tipping the scales at a pretty respectable 185 lbs. Although he’s still undersized by NHL standards, his raw physical ability shouldn’t be discounted for a couple of reasons. First of all, the kid is pretty damn strong especially for someone who just turned 20 years old, and secondly, size doesn’t really play a huge role in determining if a player is going to be successful in the NHL.
Sure, a larger frame will help you catch the eye of coaches, but there’s no evidence to suggest it actually helps you be a better hockey player. If you need more evidence that size doesn’t hold player back, look no further than the NHL playoffs. Jordan Subban is already taller than Tyler Johnson and heavier than Patrick Kane, so any thought that small guys can’t succeed when the stakes are high and the checking is tight is just factually wrong. The Chicago Blackhawks may be the favourites to win a third Stanley Cup in the last 6 years this season, and they’re one of the smallest, lightest, and least pugilistic teams in the NHL.
The paradigm around small defensemen seems to be shifting too. While once a position reserved for physical monsters in the dead puck era, we’re seeing more and more small guys like Tyson Barrie, Ryan Ellis, Torey Krug, Jared Spurgeon, and Sami Vatanen find depth roles at the NHL level as more emphasis is placed on speed and transitional play rather than obstructing and pushing around opponents. This seems to be reflected in an increasing offensive role for NHL D, as blueliners are playing a larger role than ever in generating offense for their NHL teams. All this is to say that while Jordan Subban is 5’9, this will absolutely not be the thing that holds him back from becoming a bona-fide NHL player.
ESPN’s Corey Pronman notes that a focus on size can distract you from what you’re really looking for, and that’s a player’s physical abilities. While Subban doesn’t have the insane balls-to-the-wall net-front-battle-like-hell physical game of a Brendan Gallagher, he’s still described as a “gamer” that plays bigger than his size, and a more than willing combatant who won’t back down from opponents. Pronman described Subban’s skating to me as “great,” which should come as no surprise to anyone who saw him at prospects camp at UBC last year. Subban appeared to be Vancouver’s most explosive skater, possessing both great straight-ahead speed and fantastic agility.
Subban’s biggest strength is his offensive game, however. In his 4th OHL season with the Belleville Bulls, he set a franchise record for most goals by a defenseman (25), and was the only OHL D to lead his team in both goals and points. Adding 27 assists, Subban finished 8th among OHL D in total scoring with 52 points, and 3rd in ES points with 33 as per CHLStats.com. He also scored 13% of Belleville’s total goals this year, which was the largest share of goals any OHL D had this season. Any way you cut it, Subban was one of the OHL’s best offensive defencemen in 2014-15.
His hands and puck skills are very impressive, and his shot is also a cannon. One would think that Subban’s assist totals would’ve been more impressive playing on a better team than the offensively inept Belleville Bulls, but unfortunately we’ll never know since the Bulls opted to keep Subban at the OHL trade deadline rather than deal him to a contender.
I don’t generally like highlight videos since they’re the ultimate in selection bias – you can’t get a good feel of the type of player a guy is by distilling thousands and thousands of minutes of ice time into a handful of 10-second clips – but it’s not often a D-man has some of these plays on his resume:
Before we get too excited though, it’s worth remembering that offensive success in junior, especially at 19, doesn’t necessarily translate to the NHL. All it means is that Subban has the talent level to play in the NHL; it doesn’t mean he’ll come close to excelling. In that vein, we should also note that D-men who fit Subban’s quantifiable profile make the NHL once in every five cases, which seems low but is a fantastic success rate for a guy you’re getting in the 4th round. Height bias likely understates this number somewhat, but Subban is far from a sure thing.
Corey Pronman also informed me that Subban’s off-puck defensive game improved this season, but likely won’t be something that will be a strength at the NHL level. Belleville opted against using him on the penalty kill this past year in order to give him monster minutes everywhere else, but I have yet to hear an opinion that would classify his defensive ability as “bad.” Besides, as Daniel and Henrik Sedin have proven, you don’t need to be particularly good in your defensive zone to have a massive positive defensive impact – you need to tilt the ice in your favour and play in your own zone as little as possible.
In terms of a projection, while Pronman also thinks that Subban is a top-10 prospect in Vancouver’s system right now thanks in part to the graduation of Bo Horvat, conservative projections have Subban filling a 3rd-pair role at the NHL level, taking a regular shift at 5-on-5 as well as contributing to the powerplay, similar to a Yannick Weber. Based on his track record, toolkit, and changing NHL environment, I don’t think a top-4 guy like Sami Vatanen or Jared Spurgeon is out of the question either for Subban, but that’s not the most likely scenario.
All in all, Subban was an excellent value pick in the 4th round of 2013 because he represented a better than average chance at becoming an NHL asset relative to other players available at that time, and allowing him to walk after two more promising seasons would’ve been rather poor asset management. Subban is a very solid prospect with NHL upside that has continued to refine his game in the OHL, but he still has a ways to go before he’s an NHLer. He’ll likely join the Utica Comets next season and compete for ice time on a crowded right side, and if everything goes well, hopefully we’ll see Subban in the NHL sooner rather than later.