Subban Street

My son isn’t even 3 years old yet. He doesn’t even understand the competition aspect of hockey. He knows it’s a game and he knows his Dad transforms into a 3 year old when he watches it. He also knows the Montreal Canadiens are Daddy’s favorite team, and therefore, by no choice of his own, the Habs are his favorite team. His nightlight has the Habs logo on it and there is a giant Habs flag in his bedroom, but most of all, there is this:

…sunny days?
My son doesn’t really know anything about the Habs (yet), but along with Cookie Monster and Elmo, P.K. Subban is his buddy.

That is the thing that numerous fans don’t understand (or want to admit): P.K. Subban transcends the sport of hockey. A larger than life personality; he made an impact outside the sport. Whether it was his charitable donations (not just financial but also with his own personal time), or his desire to be an entertainer beyond just an athlete – he exists beyond the realm of the game. While some are uncomfortable discussing this factor in the predominantly white sport of hockey, it is impossible to deny the impact he’s had promoting the game of hockey within the black community across North America. In terms of cross media appeal potential, he may be the biggest star the NHL has ever seen.

Unfortunately The Montreal Canadiens (and the NHL to a certain degree) had no idea how to take this unstoppable force of energy and use it to propel their franchise to the next level, on and off the ice…that may be the saddest part in all this.

One of the most prevalent points made by fans/analysts against Subban in the hours after the trade was that he was “too focused on off-ice matters.” While there is no denying that Subban had multiple projects on the go, to make the assumption that they were affecting his play is simply wrong if you dig into his  metrics. Long a favorite of the advanced stats community, Subban actually had a good year last year. A statement that would illicit eye rolls and groans amongst a large part of the hockey fan base. At the end of the day, the only number that really matters is “wins.” While the Habs were tearing through the NHL for the first 20ish games last season, not a single fan gave two shits that Subban was busy with “off ice projects.” Then came the post Carey Price injury collapse, it was inevitable that the focus would shift to the team’s next best player. His errors amplified to an over dramatic degree and his successes were buried underneath the mountain of crap that became the Habs season. It was an unfair character assassination that ramped up when the Canadiens double downed on their mediocre, uncreative, “foxhole buddy” coach: Michel Therrien. As the season spiraled out of control, more and more reports of Subban being a bad teammate began to surface. “A divide in the dressing room” became a recurring narrative as the losses mounted. Subban was right in the center of that storm. It appeared that his teammates didn’t like him, but many reputable reporters claimed that there were no significant issues in the room – although the issues seemed to get worse as the season went along. It’s easy to imagine as the losses started mounting, the stress probably boiled over a few times and turned mole hills into mountains. There are likely so many layers to this story that we will never know the truth. We do know that the coach threw his star defenseman under the bus, and there seemed to be no love lost between the two. Some way, somehow, the Montreal Canadiens chose the coach over their star defenseman…I won’t remind any of you what happened the last time the Canadiens made that decision.

I was listening to TSN690 on my drive home last night, when Mitch Melnick was talking to TSN analyst/play by play man: Gord Miller. Now Gord Miller calls a great hockey game but he said something that made me spit my coffee out all over the windshield and I wasn’t even drinking coffee. He had P.K. Subban ranked outside of the top 15 defenseman in the NHL…the Top 15!?! Not the top 5, not the top 10, not even the top 12…THE TOP 15!? He was trying to explain to the listeners and a bewildered Melnik that “outside of Montreal” – a lot of the hockey management world does not see Subban as an upper echelon elite defenseman. I’m not one to discredit Gord Miller sources – he’s in the industry and I’m not – so I’ll assume what he’s saying is true. To further his point: Subban’s exclusion from the Canada World Cup team is constantly brought up by his detractors and lends even more credence to his information. However, I have a significantly hard time believing that with the proliferation of advanced stats in hockey, P.K isn’t considered at least in the top 10 NHL blue liners. Certainly Nashville seemed to think so.  Miller asked Habs fans to take the blinders off when it comes to Subban – repeating he’s not the elite defenseman that we perceive him to be. I mean, he has a point – it is typical that a hometown fan base will overvalue players from their own teams. (I once got into a discussion with a Leafs fan who was convinced that Bozak was a bonafide #1 center in the NHL- I mean…come on, man). Trust me I get it, and I know Habs fans can be exceptionally irrational. I wrote a blog post claiming that Habs fans are the worst in the league – I get it.

But in this one specific case I think the millions of upset and irrational Habs fans are actually right.

Why?

Because P.K. Subban is so incredibly polarizing that he creates his own set of special blinders to the greater hockey world. I thought James Duthie of TSN got it right when he described that “hockey culture is still so back-asswards that people – and I don’t think it’s just Bergevin and Therrien, but even some of the players – they can’t deal with that kind of guy who has so much energy and so much personality.

The same people who accuse Habs fans from looking at him with a hometown bias are unaware of their own biases against him. Some are obvious (they simply don’t like his style of play), some are uncomfortable (blatant prejudice, English/French divide), some are simply the result of a very real chasm that exists between old time hockey people and the  modern analytics driven community. It’s that last point that leads many people to actually underrate Subban and overrate a player like Weber.

Now let me preface my following point by stating two factors:

1) I genuinely feel bad for Shea Weber. I think Shea Weber is very good hockey player. I like Shea Weber on my team. Habs fans who are upset right now, will be cheering their hearts out; the first time he smashes Marchand in the corner, or blasts a laser into the top corner to win a game in OT. He didn’t ask to be traded for someone as polarizing and popular as Subban. I think it would be shameful for the Habs fanbase to hold the trade against him and not support him as a player. He is coming here to win, and he will play his best – let’s show him the respect he deserves and cheer him on.

2) I like the analytics movement. I think it’s progressive in so many ways. Yet I do feel that some analytics people subscribe to the theory that numbers mean everything. The numbers are the end all and be all of any decision being made concerning a team compromised of…human beings. Human beings exactly like you and me. Ones that are emotional and can be affected by their everyday lives and relationships. A team is like a family; you don’t have to like everyone but you have to get along. To treat everyone like a marionette governed by Corsi and Fenwick strings simply isn’t a realistic way to build a “family.” I repeat – I think it has an important place in the decision making process, but if it’s the only factor being considered then you aren’t looking at the whole puzzle.

This chasm between “old timers” and “number guys” – when you look at this from an analytics point of view; there is no contest. Subban is not only better than Weber, you could argue he’s much better. Don’t take my word for it, much smarter people than me have done the breakdowns.

advantage: Subban
The analytics based media members also made it clear what they think of the trade.

ouch
…oh crap
i need a beer
However for a large contingent of fans and media, they subscribe to the old time hockey mentality; where character, leadership, hard work, and ‘don’t bring any attention to yourself’ are valued attributes. Chemistry is just as important as puck possession, and no one is bigger than the team. As a result these people choose to overlook these numbers due to the fact that the numbers elevate Subban to a level they aren’t willing to place him in. In their eyes, Subban plays with a “high risk” factor and Weber plays a “stay at home” style. They overlook the delta in the analytics because Weber plays with an intimidating presence and makes the “smart” play, while Subban is a “puck hog” who tries to do too much. But the biggest reason why it’s ignored is that Weber is perceived to be a leader; a team guy. Weber works hard, takes no praise, and plays for his teammates, and the crest on his chest. On the flip side, Subban is perceived to be a selfish, “me first” player. He’s a flamboyant, attention seeking teammate, who celebrates to loudly. He spends way to much time working on his brand – even at the expense of his team. 

I have no doubt Weber is all those things they say he is…and that’s great. Those are excellent attributes to have because the metrics aren’t everything. My issue is with the description of Subban – are those traits all true? No – you certainly will have a hard time convincing me that Subban was not truly proud to be part of the Montreal Canadiens. Could they partially be true? Where there is smoke there is usually fire. The numbers guys hate the terms “leadership” and “character” because they are intangible traits that cannot be measured, but to ignore that they are valued by a large part of the hockey community makes them just as blind as their counterparts on the old timers side who refuse to acknowledge the value of advanced stats. It’s when Subban’s personality and character are directly attacked that the argument begins to blend into that uncomfortable grey zone with that small minority who drive the general prejudice undertones that exists in the “good ol’ boys” culture of hockey.

Now before people begin complain and moan that prejudice doesn’t exist in the game and it’s merely Subban’s personality that irks people, I think that’s exactly the point. Most people don’t even realize they are being prejudice. It’s complicated, and I’m hardly the first person to touch on this topic. While I think blatant prejudice actually does exist (see: Don Cherry, various members of French media), the reality is that a very uncomfortable and unintentional prejudice exists in the NHL. “Unintentional prejudice” sounds ridiculous, and I’m acutely aware that I’m struggling in my attempt to describe my point. In the last 24 hours, P.K. Subban has been described as “flashy”, “flamboyant”, and that he’s an “all eyes on me” player. This is not dissimilar to how Ovechkin has been described. I’m not saying that there is a wide spread prejudice that occurs against all Russians and black players in the NHL. There is a huge contingent of fans/media/management that value the “good ol’ fashioned Canadian way” of playing hockey and if a player should fall outside those parameters – no matter what the numbers say, no matter how successful they are in the game overall – they will be ostracized to some degree.

I think it’s extremely unfortunate that P.K. Subban is no longer a Hab. He’s a tremendous talent on the ice. People will point out his attitude and problems in the dressing room, but when you have a player of Subban’s standard, I believe it’s incumbent on the coach and management to make it work. Just a few paragraphs ago, I wrote that “numbers aren’t everything” and I still stand by that. I don’t know how bad it was in the dressing room or if it was bad at all. For all I know, maybe the players led a mutiny against him and forced him out. At the end of the day though, I don’t think Subban in the dressing room was an unmanageable proposition. I don’t think that one of the most well spoken, media savvy, and classy hockey players in the world could not be mentored and guided into more of a leadership role. Subban is a superstar and he’d hardly be the first superstar who needed to be treated with a little extra attention. The people in charge have to make it work. In this case, they decided to make it work by moving a player for one they feel is better. The Canadiens are run by an old school management team, and in my opinion, they were taken to task by a younger, modern management team in the Preds who understand where the game is going and what type of players you need to get there. For fans of the Canadiens I think some of the disappointment comes from the way management handled Subban – it appeared that there was too much politics and prejudice involved. Certainly it’s a let down for people who cheer for an organization that prides it’s self on being classy. The only real way for the Habs to “win” this trade is for them to win the Cup. As mentioned, I like Weber, but does his replacement of Subban in the line up move the needle enough for the Habs to win a Cup? It is unlikely. Subban is 4 years younger, will now be playing with a chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately in 2-3 years, this probably ends up looking like a bad trade. Alas, while I believe Weber will be a very good player for the Canadiens – I will have a hard time getting over the disappointment that my son won’t see Subban develop into a truly great defenseman I think he will become. It’ll also be safe to say that Subban likely won’t be his favorite player…I guess that holds true for many young, soon to be fans of the team who already adore him…and that maybe the most heartbreaking thing of all…

I’ll leave you all with my favorite P.K. Subban moment: After a dominating performance in game 6 to tie up the 2014 Eastern Conference Semi Finals against the rival Bruins. Subban said this about going to Boston for game 7: “I can’t wait to go back in to that building and hear all that excitement from the fans and I can’t wait to take it all away from them”…Sure enough – he played great and the Habs won. Somehow this is the type of player that the Candiens felt they didn’t need. It literally leaves me shaking my head.

I always sign off this blog with a Go Habs Go…and I won’t stop now…but this is a difficult one…

Go Habs Go…

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