Analyzing Shea Weber’s recent dominance and how much can be sustained

Watch as Canadiens captain Shea Weber breaks through the defence and scores a backhand, wraparound goal on the Penguins to end the second period.

You wouldn’t guess it from how things are going right now, but this season didn’t start in an ideal fashion for Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber. Through the first month, Weber had the worst on-ice defensive metrics of any defenceman on the roster, which is extremely atypical for the so-called Man Mountain.

A lot was expected of Weber coming into this season after he rode in to stabilize an exciting-but-middling Canadiens squad last season, which followed a period where he missed 80 games. Weber came into the lineup and immediately had a huge impact, which really made William Nylander’s struggles across the Quebec/Ontario border stand out after his own mid-season return.

After a good two months or so, though, Weber drastically fell off around mid-January, and struggled with the speed of the game down the stretch. Overall his year was still fine considering the minutes he plays, but many observers expected that a full training camp along with a summer not spent rehabbing an injury or getting surgery would lead to a big return to form.

But this October didn’t see the expected results, and that left a few people in hockey that I speak to a little nervous about potential decline, given his age. It took Weber until Oct. 30 to score his first goal that wasn’t an empty netter, and that happened to be on a goalie missing a skate blade. Fast forward one week though, and things completely took off.

A quick wrister from the edge of the slot near the middle of the ice after a successful forecheck by Joel Armia poked a puck loose to Jonathan Drouin, who then fed Weber up high, has led to Weber looking 10 years younger in the five weeks since. His play had already started to pick up before then, and since that Oct. 30 game against the Arizona Coyotes, Weber has accumulated nine goals and 19 points in just 20 games played, the third-highest mark among all defencemen over that time behind only John Carlson and Keith Yandle.

Historically, most of Weber’s offensive impact lies in his shot, and that’s mostly utilized on the power play. But overall this season he ranks 34th among defencemen in scoring chance generating plays every 20 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5. When we look at that in the window from Oct. 30 to now, he climbs up to 18th.

That’s a huge positive change for Weber, who ranked 66th in that category last season, 88th the season before, and 107th in his first season in Montreal. That’s the opposite type of curve you expect to see from a defenceman in their 30s, but offence has never really been an issue for Weber. That shot of his isn’t going anywhere.

His offensive production over this stretch has been incredible and those flashy numbers catch your eye, but more than just being involved in offence, what has impressed me has been Weber’s clamp down defensively, which has resulted in killer differentials.

In a little less than the first month of the season, Weber was just fine in terms of shots and shot attempts, but when it came to the quality plays that create most of the goals we see every night, the Canadiens were worse off with him on the ice than off of it. But since our date cutoff, Weber has flipped that on its head.

Not much has changed with shots in total, but the quality plays have drastically gone in Weber’s favour.

A fair question at this point would be whether or not Weber’s play changed much over this time, or if the Canadiens — who lost eight straight and nine of 10 — fell off around him and he stayed consistent, but that isn’t the case.

Since that Oct. 30 cutoff, Weber ranks sixth among all defencemen in high danger scoring chance differential at 65.2 per cent, whereas the first month he was hovering around break even. His improvement has come at both ends of the rink and he’d likely be getting even more positive press if he hadn’t been devastatingly unlucky on the defensive side over that time.

In all situations in 2019-20, the save percentage of Canadiens goalies behind Weber is just 89.21 per cent, with both Carey Price and Keith Kinkaid struggling, mostly on special teams. According to Natural Stat Trick, that has led to an overall goal differential of 49.4 per cent, significantly lower than Weber’s expected goal differential of 52.06 per cent. He’s had a high on-ice shooting percentage to help compensate, but despite the point production, we can say that Weber has still been a little unlucky on balance, which really drives home how dominant he has been.

However, there is one hitch here that needs to be brought up. Weber has had a similar run to this every season he’s been a Montreal Canadien. It usually lasts between six and eight weeks, and during those times Weber is so dominant that he looks like the best defenceman in the NHL, sometimes gusting into best player territory.

Each season where he’s played a significant number of games, though, there has been a precipitous drop in play as the season wore on. And, by the end of the season, these totals are a little less flattering.

Outside of the 2017-18 season where Weber only played 26 games, which happened to occur right in his zone of dominance before injury ended his campaign, you can see his on-ice dominance has faded.

Last season was the first where his ability to protect the inner slot area wasn’t present and I don’t believe that situation will arise again, but slot pass protection and control of shots attempts haven’t been a huge strength for Weber overall.

With all that said, I think it’s very fair to point out that the injury that stole a season’s worth of games from Weber had apparently been lingering for multiple seasons and very easily could have impacted his play, holding him back from giving his all for a full 82 games. Similarly, missing training camp last season and getting started in November was likely more difficult than most of us understood. Once the adrenaline of being back wore off, it’s not unreasonable for his play to have faded.

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So there’s no reason to be confident that Weber will see his play fall off in an extreme way as the season goes on; he’s healthier than he’s been in any other recent season, and he’s had a full summer to train and a pre-season to settle in.

But…

What we do know is that Weber has not been able to maintain this level of play for a full season in Montreal so far, which makes this next stretch of games very important for him and the team. They’ve already wasted several weeks of their captain’s best play since he first put on the jersey in 2016, so they can’t afford to not take advantage of what he’s doing right now. They owe it to him.

Three wins in four games appears to be the start of a turnaround the Canadiens need. Weber has been the key catalyst to get them there, while trying to float them through their struggles before. That’s leading by example, and if he can maintain his performance, Montreal will become a very dangerous team, especially when they get their injured forwards back.

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