As any NHL executive can attest, you’re always looking for ways to improve your team. Even if that means making the ballsy move. Hence the deal between Nashville and Montreal that materialized Wednesday, drastically changing the makeup of two teams.
The Canadiens and GM Marc Bergevin did what they felt was the right move for the franchise. Same with the Predators and GM David Poile. They’ll talk about how the player they acquired was a superstar who fit the makeup of what they wanted their team to be.
Technically speaking, they’re not wrong. Subban, for all his warts, is one of the best puckmoving defenders in the game. For a Nashville team that has been moving towards team speed in transition and creating sustained offensive pressure, he’s a great fit on the backend. A guaranteed 50+ point, right-shot defenseman in his prime who can create zone entries in multiple ways is basically a unicorn on the trade market.
Weber is the kind of punishing defenseman that Montreal has been looking for, basically since forever ago. He’s big, he’s mean, and he matches the way Michel Therrien wants the team to play, with intensity and defensive fortitude. Add the shot to that and the ability to be a powerplay quarterback and he’s the prototypical old-school defender.
I’m not super fond of Subban, I will readily admit. No one will ever accuse me of being overly flamboyant or the life of a party. But while he and Weber are probably equivalent in terms of present value, there is a clear winner and a clear loser in this trade, and Nashville is not the loser (potential bigtime cap recapture penalty notwithstanding).
Weber is a great player, a number 1 defender and a staple on the national squad of the best hockey nation in the world. And as stated earlier, he’s exactly the kind of player Therrien needs in order to play the style of game he wants the Canadiens to play. But there are 2 reasons why this deal is a loss for the Habs, maybe not now but certainly in the near and distant future.
Number 1 is age and money. Subban’s contract ends as he turns 33. That reduces the risk of having an anchor contract on the books for the Preds, given that he’s still fairly close to prime age at that point and should still be a highly effective player. Weber earns nearly $1.2 million less each season on the cap compared to P.K., but his contract also ends at the ripe old age of 40, an extra 4 years in total on Subban’s contract.
Bearing in mind, that while Weber is still a quality NHL defenseman, he’s also been on the decline for over 3 years in a row (charts courtesy of the excellent work being done at OwnthePuck):
Keeping in mind that these figures are weighted 3-year averages, the fact that we have to go all the back to the 2011-12 season (P.K.’s sophomore year) in order to find a measure that suggests a noticeable gap in the quality of their play in favor of Weber is a bad sign. Shea hasn’t been an elite shot suppressor since 2012, and hasn’t been a top pairing shot-based possession player since 2013. It’s also been on a noticeably steady and sizable decline since then.
Subban on the other hand has been consistently stellar on both the point production and shot-based possession scales ever since the lockout year. For a guy who many consider to be a defensive liability, he does extremely well at keeping shots against down in comparison to his teammates. The one year he didn’t, this season, happened to be a year in which his team as a whole fell apart.
Weber is still a good player despite these numbers, and we have to acknowledge that in this deal, at this moment, the Habs didn’t necessarily lose out in terms of quality, and they added a player that fits their coach better. Right now, the trade is a win-win for both sides.
But moving forward, and considering the cap implications and knowing what we do about Weber’s overall development, is this a still a win for Montreal in, say, 2019? How about 2022? By then they’ll be paying a 36-year old Weber $7.8 million in order to play for the team. Is a 36-year old Shea Weber still worth $7.8 million? It’s hard to see that happening when he has noticeably declined already at the ripe old age of 30. It’s not just what the stats say; the eyeball tests have already started to bear this out to an extent as well.
The opportunity cost of trading a 27-year old defenseman with 6 years left on his contract is massive. The sheer cap flexibility alone makes this trade a loss for Montreal moving forward, as Shea’s value declines with age. Subban’s will too, but likely at a less drastic level and unlikely to be to the point of straight up negative value, which Weber’s could very well be by the time he’s 37, 38, 39.
The second point is on whether or not matching a player to Therrien’s system is even a good move in the first place. Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins in this year’s playoffs was somewhat mundane, if only because the way they dominated opponents in terms of shots on a consistent basis made it fairly predictable to see who had the advantage in a game. And they didn’t do it with a big bruising L.A. Kings type team, firing from any and all angles. They did it with a quick , arguably soft team that dominated shots not because they took more per capita compared to the league average, but because they simply had the puck that much more often thanks to aggressive blue line play, quick passing through the neutral zone with excellent puck support, and a forecheck that used the playoff grind mentality to its advantage by swarming defenders who braced themselves for impact and stripping the puck.
We’re seeing more and more teams adopting ye olde Detroit Red Wings philosophy of play, where you don’t need to be a bruiser to be hard to play against. Speedy teams who pressure the puck, stand up at the blueline and move the puck well as a unit are the teams that are finding success on a consistent basis. Chicago won 3 Cups this way, and Pittsburgh now has 2 in the Crosby/Malkin era. And the 2nd one for Pittsburgh was never really in doubt once the playoffs started; they were just that good.
Montreal is moving the exact opposite direction. Therrien’s “chip the puck off the glass” mentality is exactly what the old-school type thinkers would want. In certain situations, it’s not a bad choice. But it’s also a 50/50 play at the best of times, where you’re isolating your own player and an opposing player in the hopes that yours will win the puck battle and maybe send it up the ice for another 50/50 battle. On good days, you’ll get a ton of odd-man rushes and pretty goals and a happy Michel Therrien. On bad days, the common complaint is “lack of effort”. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s a common rhetoric among coaches who have had experience both pre- and post- red line. With the advent of 2-line passing, a lot of old-school coaches took advantage to great effect, at least early on after the 2005 rule changes. It led to a lot of exciting, end-to-end hockey thanks to long passes and chip out plays against red line trap setups. But in the current meta of the NHL, teams have learned to cover for a lot of these isolated breakout plays simply by setting up closer to their own blue line and jamming the neutral zone. It’s an antiquated system to rely on for sustained offense because of the inability to consistently hold possession of the puck.
Bringing us back to Montreal. Weber is a dream for the likes of Therrien and Bob Hartley (oh boy was I wrong on that call, although there’s still something to be said about good leadership top to bottom) who believe in the isolated breakout. He’s big and strong and able to win puck battles in the defensive zone, and thus is very easily able to gain possession of the puck. That part is universally lauded as a great skill by any coach, and is part of what makes Weber an elite defender. It’s what happens afterwards in Therrien’s system that has become obsolete; Therrien’s players tend to defer to quick-strike rush opportunities in order to enter the offensive zone. That means a lot of long 2-line passes, a fair bit of “off the glass” plays for zone exits and a fair amount of “standstill” dump-ins if a rush isn’t available, i.e. dump-ins for the sake of “playing it safe” rather than to try and regain the puck immediately. Just check out Max Pacioretty’s goals from the 2015-16 season:
It’s a long watch, but take note of just the first goal and the first empty netter if you don’t have the time to go through the rest. Both long passes (courtesy of one P.K. Subban). There isn’t a lot of puck support on these zone exit plays and it’s a lot of one-man up top hoping for a big breakout pass. In general, there’s a fair amount of first-chance opportunity goals (whether it be an odd-man rush or simply a long pass leading to a lone forward who brings it into the offensive zone) but not a lot of sustained pressure 5 on 5 all things considered.
Now, maybe Weber changes this. Maybe Therrien just tried to adapt to P.K.’s style and will make a change towards a more balanced attack (i.e. more than half the plays are controlled zone exits and entries) now that he has a player of Weber’s ilk leading the defense, with the forwards and defensemen better supporting each other as 5 man units instead of being isolated like islands in the neutral zone. Maybe his team will focus more on keeping the puck from entering the zone by using their speed and good defensive support.
But if he doesn’t, then Therrien’s system will once again rely, if not completely then fairly heavily, on Carey Price being the best goalie in the NHL and isolated zone exit plays. And if that’s the case, then the Canadiens are not going far even with Weber. The 50/50 play is a great threat and helps keep defending teams on their toes, but it in conjunction with the home run pass shouldn’t be the focal transition play and certainly not when your team suddenly has a pressing need for young, mobile puckmoving defensemen.
Marc Bergevin has thrown his lot in with Michel Therrien. With that in mind, Weber is actually a really good acquisition in a vacuum. He brings a dimension to the Habs that is basically unmatched in the East (thanks to Chara’s drop-off), and doesn’t theoretically make the team worse in any way right now. He also saves them a bit of money in the short-term which could be used to fix other parts of the roster. The team didn’t lose because of P.K., but he was the face of a losing team and a supposed distraction. If you can replace a distraction with the most intimidating defenseman in the league, one who opposing Western GMs are literally grateful to see leaving the conference, then you didn’t exactly do poorly in the immediate future.
However, choosing to continue with the Therrien route is in itself a mistake all things considered. The moves made by the Habs over the past few weeks have all been towards making the team tougher to play against, without bringing in any sizable upgrade in skill (and arguably a downgrade in some cases). It says a lot when the GM labels an incoming player such as Shea as a guy who “plays the right way” as if to say that the outgoing guy somehow doesn’t. If nothing else, they sacrificed a lot of good years from a good player for a borderline lateral move at the present and a likely net loss in the future, so from a cost-benefit perspective it’s a large price to pay in order to shorten the Habs’ window of opportunity.
Acquiring Weber is a short-term solution to the wrong problem, and his contract and play suggest that the move will have major consequences on the team’s ability to manage the cap in the future.