After P.K. Subban put the Nashville Predators on his (apparently still injured) back to win Game 1 of their second round Stanley Cup playoff series against the St. Louis Blues Wednesday, there were a lot of hushed voices in Montreal wondering how different things might be now had the Canadiens not traded him away.
Nothing is so simple of course; the Canadiens finished the season with just $470,952 in cap space, whereas the gap between Subban and Shea Weber’s cap hits is $1,142,857, so in order for that to have worked, the Canadiens team would be a little different anyway.
However, for argument’s sake, let’s just substitute one for the other, assuming the exact same level of performance, because how much of a difference can one player really make in a short series in hockey?
The Canadiens’ series against the Rangers wasn’t one where they lacked for scoring chances. They had the best scoring chance differential of the first round, and in terms of goals scored on actual goalies, the series ended 12-11 for the Rangers. By all accounts, this was a close series with Lundqvist being the difference-maker.
Could Subban have been the tipping point offensively?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first; Shea Weber was good in the playoffs for the Canadiens, and he certainly wasn’t a weak link, but he wasn’t a game-breaker either. Subban on the other hand, was a defensive wonder in the first round, shutting down the Toews line en route to a first round sweep of the top seeded Blackhawks.
To start the opening round, Subban began to show the offensive flair he’s known for, having a hand in all four Predators goals, even scoring an empty netter that didn’t end up counting due to an offside.
In small samples we can see wide gaps in performance, so if we don’t assume that these two players have the exact same performance, what are the odds things shake out the same way? Well, as it happens, if you take the past five seasons of play into account, it’s actually pretty likely.
For the past five years, no defenseman in the NHL who has played 4,000 or more minutes at 5-vs-5 has had as large of a positive impact on goals as P.K. Subban has, which is ultimately what the game of hockey is about. You can shake your head at Corsi if you’d like, but when it comes right down to it, Subban ranks first both at even strength and in all situations in the entire NHL in driving team goals.
Now how much might that have changed the Canadiens’ series? If the same level of performance was there for both players, Weber’s seven on-ice goals for and five goals against over six games becomes 12 goals for and four goals against with P.K. Subban. That would shift the goal differential in the series against the Rangers from 12-11 Rangers to 16-11 Canadiens, which would make them far more likely to take the series.
But, and this is a big but, nothing is this simple. This can be a fun exercise, but we can’t ever know for sure what the results would have been. Had the Canadiens kept P.K. Subban in the off-season they might be a vastly different team right now. Would Claude Julien have ended up as the head coach? Would they have been able to sign Alexander Radulov? We don’t and can’t know.
What we do know though, is that for the last half decade, Subban has had a greater impact on the outcomes of games than Shea Weber has, and it’s high time he’s recognized as the generational defenceman he is.