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.