There was nothing subtle about the trade. Shea Weber in exchange for P.K. Subban. One for one. Two productive right-handed defensemen in their primes. Both had been named all-stars on multiple occasions and had played for Canada at the Olympics. It is a credit to the two players that the fans in both cities were displeased with the trade. Needless to say, there are far more hockey fans in Montreal than there are in Nashville, and they have never been shy in, as Danny Gallivan would say, “expressing their displeasure.” At the time of the trade, the Canadiens were coming off a disappointing non-playoff season and for the next two seasons struggled to rebuild a contender. This year, they appear to be on the right track. Nashville was just coming off an impressive playoff performance and was moving into the elite group of top NHL teams, where they remain. Weber and Subban have been key members of their new teams. Both have encountered injuries, but for the first time in a year, both appear to be healthy. Fans and media continue to debate the merits of the trade. Your conclusion should be based on answering a simple question: who is a better hockey player, Weber or Subban? Before we answer the question, let’s make sure we clear away the smoke so we can more clearly see the fire.
THE SPORT AND THE GAME
Professional hockey, like all other professional sports, has two aspects. The first is simply “the sport,” players competing as a team trying to win every game and, ultimately, the Stanley Cup. The second may be called “the game.” Pro hockey is a business. Careers are short. Competition for NHL contracts is fierce. Players want to maximize the revenue they receive during their careers and open up doors for additional revenue aside from their contracts. Subban plays “the game” much better than Weber. He engages the fans at all times, he is always providing fresh material to the media, and he dresses in public in a distinctive style. Weber does none of these things. As a result, there are no major network features on him to publicize the All-Star Game, and I’m not aware of him being in any television commercials as a spokesman for major corporations. His public profile is much lower than that of Subban. For all of this, I say well done for Subban. The attention he creates is good for hockey. But that said, it should not be a factor in comparing how he and Weber perform on the ice.
Both players have been workhorses throughout their careers, each averaging more than 24 minutes per game in the regular season and 25 minutes per game in the playoffs. Obviously, both play a lot at full strength, but their method of usage in those situations is different. Weber throughout his career has consistently been matched against the opposition’s top players. Subban has not been. Both have been on their team’s first power-play units. Weber is on his team’s first penalty-killing unit. Subban is not. Both players are used at times in the game when their team needs to score. Weber is always used in late-game situations when his team is defending a lead. Usually Subban is not. Weber’s role is more versatile.
Both Subban and Weber are good playmakers. Subban carries the puck more and joins the rush more frequently. More of his plays are in the offensive zone, resulting in assists. Weber is an exceptional passer in the defensive zone. A significant difference between the two is that Subban gives the puck away to the opposition more than twice as frequently as Weber. It is clear to all hockey fans that there is no comparison in shooting. Subban’s shot is above average. Weber is one of the best point shooters in history. His quick release and accuracy are both at the elite level, and the speed of his shot has been recorded at levels matched only by Zdeno Chara.
It is interesting to note that over the course of their lengthy NHL careers, Subban and Weber have accumulated points at a similar rate. However, their offensive styles are quite different. Subban carries the puck much more than Weber. He gives head fakes, he stickhandles, he holds opponents off with one hand and often makes smart plays. He has a good shot from the point, but nothing exceptional. Weber carries the puck far less than Subban. He makes excellent first passes in the defensive zone. He does not join the rush as much. In the offensive zone, Weber is always trying to place himself into good shooting position. He is one of the best shooters from the point I have ever seen. His release is quick and the shots are lethal – powerful and accurate. Subban’s top goal-scoring total in a season is 16. Weber has exceeded or matched this total eight times and has twice scored 23 goals. Weber’s top assist total is 33. Subban has exceeded that total four times with his top total being 45.
Weber is much better in backward skating and agility. Subban works hard at this part of his game, but it is herky-jerky, and he often has to play opponents at an angle because his pivots are very average. Weber may be the best backward skater for a big man I have seen. He is fluid and balanced and able to use his stick effectively to block passing lanes while skating backward. His pivots are smooth and powerful. Weber does not have blazing speed going forward, but he is fluid with good acceleration. Subban is very determined, driving through opponents and breaking loose from checks. However, he appears to be slower than in past seasons. In a game against Carolina, Sebastian Aho blew by him in an empty-net situation with the game on the line.
Subban is a good NHL defenseman who has not been used on a regular basis, either in Montreal or in Nashville, against the opposition’s best players. Weber has always been matched on a nightly basis against the best the opposition has to offer. I recently scouted him in consecutive games against Colorado and Boston. He played virtually every shift against the top two scoring lines in the NHL. He was superb. Montreal won both games. Both Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado made it clear Weber had been a major impediment to their line throughout the game. Weber’s superior size, strength, aggressiveness and agility put him far ahead of Subban on the defensive side of the puck. Subban works hard defensively, but he often commits penalties in trying to defend. Even though Weber has recorded more than 50 percent more hits than Subban, it is Subban who has more than 50 percent more penalty minutes than Weber.
The only area in which Subban can match Weber is offensive production, where very different methods produce relatively similar results. Weber may be the best defender in hockey against top offensive players. Subban does not often play against these stars. Subban is a very average physical force. Weber is a behemoth who effectively wears down opponents. Even though he plays a much more aggressive game defensively, Weber takes significantly fewer penalties than Subban. He also gives the puck away to the opposition less frequently. Both defensemen are better than average offensively, but Weber is far superior in all other aspects of his play. Shea Weber is a better defenseman than P.K. Subban.