Are P.K. Subban, Jake Gardiner poised for potential breakouts?

New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban (76) skates during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

Whether you want to call it bounces, random variance, or luck, hockey is a game that thrives on it. The speed of the game, the relative infrequency of goals compared to a sport like basketball, the fact that it’s played with skates, on ice, with a puck instead of a ball, there’s so much about hockey that’s unique to the sport, and leads to random events dictating what many see as performance indicators.

Because of hockey’s inherent randomness in small samples, statistics like Corsi (shot attempt differential) and PDO (on-ice shooting percentage plus on-ice save percentage) rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, replaced in many ways now by more complex analytics like WAR (wins above replacement), RAPM (regularized adjusted plus/minus), or xGoals (expected goals-for percentage).

All of those new models attempt to incorporate a variety of metrics to not just get a better grasp of performance above and beyond a simple differential, but also in some cases adjust for the situations a player is put into.

Using those models you can get a good idea of who is performing well or poorly, and also who has been torn asunder by poor luck to begin a season. There are no guarantees in hockey, and no model is perfect, but using something as simple as expected goals from a side like Natural Stat Trick, we can come up with a list of some of the unluckiest players in the NHL by contrasting their expected goals in all situations with their actual goals-for percentage.

Using all situations is a bit more muddy than looking strictly at five-on-five, but the reason for doing so is strictly to find the players who have been most punished overall, then we can move backwards and see how likely it is they can turn it around in the final two thirds or so of the 2019-20 NHL season.

So who are the unluckiest players by goal difference so far this season?

These are the 10 players in who have played at least 400 minutes so far this season and have seen a goals-for percentage at least 15 percentage points worse than what Natural Stat Trick’s xGoals model expects them to experience. Unsurprisingly, a good chunck of them – and even more players right near them that aren’t shown – are either New Jersey Devils or Detroit Red Wings.

Everything possible has gone wrong this season for those two teams, and these are the players getting dinged for it the most.

Perhaps because the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t been very good so far this season, I haven’t seen much talk about Jake Gardiner’s struggles, but Tyler Toffoli’s name is swirling in trade rumours, and good or bad, P.K. Subban’s name is always in headlines; lots of people think he’s washed.

Wayne Simmonds is someone I’ve written about already this season. I believe he’s having a revelatory campaign that’s hidden by the Devils’ struggles and poor luck, which should eventually turn, so I don’t think I need to look into him. Similar goes for Nico Hischier, who has arguably been New Jersey’s best player overall. I have no doubt at all that he’ll be just fine.

Let’s focus on the other three forwards and three defencemen who have been most unlucky so far, and see who if any of them seem poised to turn this thing around. Sorry to Justin Braun and Dennis Cholowski, maybe another time.

FORWARDS

Tyler Toffoli, Andreas Athanasiou, and Jeff Carter are all good players. At one point, Toffoli looked like a budding star, while Athanasiou’s speed makes him a dangerous offensive weapon in the middle of a lineup, and Carter used to be a legitimate star player, but is now trending down at 34 years old (turning 35 in the new year).

All these players have their faults, but can any of them recover?

All three of these players are pushing play offensively, putting up better than league average scoring-chance numbers on teams that struggle to create chances. Toffoli and Carter are one and two on the Kings in scoring chances per minute played, and both are in the positives in inner-slot shot, shot, and shot-attempt differential.

Carter is struggling a bit in the slot-pass differential category, but while Toffoli is on the ice, the Kings are getting a whopping 60 per cent of the slot passes at even strength. My initial thought was perhaps Toffoli was getting boosted defensively by Anze Kopitar, but he’s played under 40 minutes with Kopitar this season, his most common linemate is actually Carter.

None of the three players are much for playmaking as individuals. When Carter and Toffoli play together it’s 21-year-old rookie Blake Lizzotte doing the distributing for their shooting. Carter is closer to the net, and Toffoli is in the high slot. That line has actually been very good, with an expected goals-for percentage of 64.8 per cent.

If the Kings are serious about trading Toffoli while his value is low, a lot of teams that need scoring would be wise to throw their hats in the ring.

Athanasiou is a little bit different. Offensively he’s a very good player, extremely fast and dangerous off the rush, but he also sports the worst defensive numbers on the Red Wings aside from Madison Bowey. Athanasiou is talented, and he should end up way better than the absolutely absurd minus-31 he’s sporting right now, but he is a legitimate defensive drag, which is why he never seems to be out of the doghouse in Detroit for long.

DEFENCEMEN

Defenders are a bit tougher to evaluate from this perspective because they’re simply less involved in creating offence than forwards are, and measuring defensive contributions is a bit more of a nebulous idea.

In order to get a better feel for these defencemen’s impacts on their teams, let’s look at the relative change they have on several on-ice metrics before we go into each individually.

Jake Gardiner’s start with his new team hasn’t been what he expected, but it’s not all bad news. The big area that’s hurting him so far is that dreaded inner slot area. He’s actually had a really solid impact at protecting the middle of the ice from passes, but compared to the rest of the Hurricanes’ defencemen, he’s getting beat up in front of the net.

Part of the reason for that is going to be Gardiner’s natural style of play not being very physical, but he’s also been committing more turnovers this year than usual, which puts him on the defence more than necessary. That leads to opponents exploiting his weaknesses more often.

Whenever a player is struggling this much, it’s easy to focus on their weaknesses and say “this is why,” but those weaknesses almost always exist at all times, and nothing Gardiner does makes his sub-30 per cent on-ice goal differential earned.

Like Gardiner, Subban’s start with his new team has been less than ideal, to say the least. Some people are speculating that his injuries have caught up to him, with some people believing that this is the moment where the player is showing he’s washed up and unable to recover.

There’s lots of evidence working against Subban’s play this season. The offensive involvement on the power play just isn’t there compared to recent years, and he’s getting absolutely picked apart in his own zone by passing through the middle. Both those things are going to have to change in order for him to rebound, but not everything is bad.

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In all the shot-based metrics, Subban is having his usual strong impacts, and when you look at the areas he usually excels, for the most part things are as expected. He’s got the lowest turnover rate on the Devils, so he’s still managing the puck well, and he’s recovering loose pucks at a high rate as well.

The main area Subban has struggled has been an area he’s usually excellent in; defending his own blueline. He has the lowest controlled entry denial rate on the Devils’ defence core, which leads to more scoring chances against off the rush, more playing out of position, more chasing, etc.

However most of those struggles have only really surfaced in a meaningful way while he’s shared the ice with Will Butcher. The two just don’t seem to have chemistry, with an expected goals-for percentage of just 40.1 while on the ice together this season, miles behind his performance with Damon Severson at 53.4 per cent, or with Andy Greene at 59.8 per cent.

All data included, despite his play not being good enough according to Subban himself – even if nothing changes at all in his play – a lot better results should be expected as the season drags on. Even offensively, Subban has averaged a point on 49 per cent of the goals he’s on the ice for over the three years previous to this one, while this season he’s down to just 25 per cent. That’s a crazy drop off that isn’t even close to reflected in the overall performance he’s put forth.

Also on the Devils, which is likely part of the problem for both players, Damon Severson is actually above team average in impacts across the board. Severson hasn’t been great defensively, but he is a very effective offensive support player to keep things going for New Jersey’s attack.

Unfortunately for him, the Devils’ attack has been toothless this season, and when your main function is to be the guy that creates the situation for goals to go in instead of firing the actual puck into the net, there’s not a lot you can do to force your teammates to score.

There’s nothing wrong with the way Severson is playing, but the team around him not scoring severely limits his impact. It will be interesting to see if the Devils try him and Subban together again, since the two seemed to be able to handle tough minutes together, and if the Devil’s luck as a team ever turns around, both players will see a boost to their offensive numbers on top of the expected change in goal differential.

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