At what point does an NHLer become tempered by high expectations?

We love to confirm our own expectations and reject the expectations of others in the early part of a season, whether it be hockey, football or lawn darts. However certain trends pop up in mid-to-late October that mess with our heads. Sometimes, things happen that we weren’t expecting. I’ll let The Joker explain this one:

You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”.

-Batman: The Dark Knight (2008, Warner Bros.)

If unexpected successes or struggles occur midseason, they get lost in the overall grind of the calendar and exist as snippets on the “hot and cold” scoreboard rather than talking points for the media. The crazier the media, the crazier the early-season perception of a hockey player.

Enter one Pernell Karl Subban.

Full disclosure: Subban is one of my favourite hockey players. I attended his entrance into the national spotlight at the 2009 World Juniors in Ottawa and he made full use of his time. He was younger and cockier 30 months ago, confident with the puck and electrifying. He was a prospect of the Montreal Canadiens, and even though the tournament took place in Ontario where a lot of Toronto fans came up for the tournament (my only conversations in French that trip were at the Ottawa airport) his name was routinely chanted when he set up a quality scoring chance or when the crowd was anticipating an end-to-end rush.

P-K! P-K! P-K!

He’s a spotlight star. I’ve never spoken to Subban at all, but I expect he enjoyed the attention he got after that tournament. His next foray into national attention, the 2010 Montreal Canadiens playoff run, he may have played even better. He was the only Canadiens player who dressed that playoff run to record a positive Corsi number and finished with a PDO of above 1000, although it was driven by shooting percentage. ‘The kid could create’, we assumed. It didn’t matter that his on-ice save percentage was well below the mean—the way Jaroslav Halak was playing that run, there was no need for extra defense. Montreal would need to score.

Last season Subban scored 14 goals and 34 points. The young folk loved him. He drew the ire of the established hockey crowd because he played with swagger and we loved that about him too. Guys that are electrifying, good, and piss off old people don’t come around very often. He was one stupid haircut short of being a punk band.

What did we expect out of Subban this season? What was the plan for him? From Darren Eliot’s SI Northeast Division Preview, here’s what he wrote about PK:

The brash young blueliner is one of those players that draws your attention whenever he is on the ice. He plays with flash and flare and there is an element of risk to his game at times. He is a pure talent, and with Andrei Markhov still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, the Canadiens need Subban to start the season by showing that he is one year more mature instead of playing as if he has already arrived after a fine rookie campaign.

Not only has PK deviated from the plan, but it’s been a nightmare. This season hasn’t gotten off to a good start for either Subban or the Canadiens. He has just 2 points and is a minus-6 in 7 games and the Canadiens are 1-4-2 heading into tonight’s game against Florida. Mike Halford opined last week on NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk blog:

But with the Habs collecting just one win in their first five games and Subban struggling throughout, fewer and fewer are enjoying the PK Show. It’s starting to drive everybody nuts.

Halford linked to a video of a goal in which Subban gave up the puck at centre ice leading to a breakaway goal against. But that’s just part of the reason we track PDO: 60-70% of the time, the breakaway chance is refudiated by the goaltender or by the shooter missing the shot. In a way, you can say that Subban was even unlucky that that goal went in. Those are just the breaks that have gone against him so far this season.

Bro-crush

It all comes down to expectation for Subban. Other than the visible plays that have led to his 891 PDO, the much-less visible Corsi number puts Subban at +22 per 60 minutes. This means that, thus far in the season, the puck is far more likely to be in the opposing team’s end than his own.

Kent Wilson of Hockey Prospectus wrote about the Canadiens Friday night. His concluding paragraph was about Subban:

And one further piece of comfort: P.K. Subban’s struggles are of a similar nature. The sophomore defender has the highest possession rate on the team amongst defensemen (+19.27/60) and it’s merely bad bounces dragging down his results right now (his PDO is 896). Once the percentages regress to the mean, he’ll look like a star again.

It’s all about looking like the star for Subban. It was all about being the young, brash player maturing one more year and his composure raising to a point to match his talent. That’s what we expect. That’s what we hoped to see. And instead we have highlight videos of giveaways leading to goals and cherry-picked statistics about his play. Saturday against Toronto, Subban’s Corsi number went up, yet his PDO dropped.

As a team, Montreal are much better than their record indicate. Another record, the broken one, continues to spin when discussing PK and his early performance.

Comments (8)

  1. Nice useage of the Lanny McDonald-ized Subban!

  2. Thanks for that. If you read the Montreal media, you’ll know fair and balanced views on Subban (or on anything Habs for that matter) are pretty hard to come by these days…

  3. He really shows the limits of Corsi. Let’s say that eight out of ten times his shifts end in the offensive zone. His Corsi will be great. But those two times are made of a lot of breakaways which are naturally higher percentage chances than a normal rush so over time he’s really hurting his team. I actively hope for him to be on the ice when my team plays him as I know it will mean a bunch of breakaways the other way.

    He’s young so he’ll likely get better on the D end but right now he’s very overrated.

  4. The problem with PDO is it assumes every shot/save is equal which is just not the case. With a guy like Subban those extra chances allowed because of mistakes gambling are high percentage chances. This is not a hard argument to make: He’s not been unlucky because of a low PDO, he has a low PDO because the chances he’s giving up are harder to save.

    I just can’t buy in to looking at PDO inside a bubble without looking at what is actually happening on the ice. I really don’t think you can just assume that over the long haul a players PDO will trend to 1000.

    • His scoring chances are also way in the black, 60+% which is huge especially in the tough minutes role. He`s a microcosm of the Habs season thus far, heavily outchancing the opponent yet still losing.

  5. i believe that quote is actually said by the joker.

    good article…i’m not the biggest PK fan personally, i’m sure a lot has to do with being a leaf fan. but i just dont like his style of play. hasnt “an element of risk” in young players games traditionally not gone well for them?

    he’s got skill…but could use some more technical aspects to his defence… after all he is a defencemen isnt he?

    • So was Bobby Orr, and you don’t see people complaining about what he did as a defenceman, rushing up the ice and all that.

      Subban isn’t Bobby Orr, obviously, but who cares? He’s absolutely wonderful to watch, a breath of fresh air in the stiff personality-free NHL.

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