There are 86 days until the 2016-17 NHL season begins, which means only 86 more days until the P.K. Subban-Shea Weber trade becomes just another of the many hockey things to talk about instead of seemingly the only thing. That is, unless the World Cup (in 60 days) is enough of a distraction. The trade that shook the NHL was completed almost three weeks ago, but the debate, the revelations and the hand wringing have not slowed one bit.
The latest spark in the debate comes via Matt Pfeffer, the analytics consultant who advocated against Montreal making this trade. The Habs obviously ignored his advice and -- perhaps in a related move -- Pfeffer's contract was not renewed.
According to the initial report from Sportsnet's Eric Engels, which was later confirmed with some clarification by Pfeffer, the consultant made an emphatic case for keeping Subban. Pfeffer has since reentered the public sphere, returning to Twitter and signing on to write for popular hockey analytics site, hockey-graphs.com. He also gave an interview to Ken Campbell of The Hockey News and, ho boy, did he have some things to say.
UPDATE: Pfeffer has since tweeted his regret for making the statements he did, which remain below:
Deeply regret recent negative comments made to THN regarding Weber and Canadiens. They do not represent my true feelings on player or club.— Matt Pfeffer (@MattPfefferHky) July 18, 2016
Pfeffer said he did not feel his consultation on the Subban trade directly led to his dismissal, but he did not back off on his thoughts on the deal in what turned out to be candid, and some might say inflammatory remarks.
"There are times when there's some possibility that there would be another side to the argument, but this was one of those things where [the trade] was so, so far outside what could be considered reasonable," Pfeffer said. "I made a pretty strong case, but I made the case that the analytics made. This wasn't a personal thing."
In a hockey world where so much is shrouded in secrecy, you have to appreciate the candid nature of the comments even at the risk of torching a bridge in the process.
Pfeffer also explained to THN that his Weber analysis did not have a lot to do with Corsi, which measures the differential of shot attempts for and against at even strength when a certain player is on the ice. It was actually Weber's even-strength goal differential that gave the young analytics expert pause.
Per THN, Weber's goal differential was 0.18 percent, while Subban had an especially impressive 3.14 percent rate. Those numbers mean Habs were a lot more dangerous when Subban was on the ice, while Weber didn't have a substantial impact on goals for or against, despite both players having gaudy offensive numbers in terms of goals and assists.
And here's the line that is going to ignite a red-hot debate on everything from the trade to the role of analytics in hockey to whatever else will fill the summer:
"There's nothing wrong with being average in the NHL," Pfeffer told Campbell. "An average NHLer is worth a heck of a lot and that's what Shea Weber is."
While this could sound like sour grapes, Pfeffer maintains that this is what the numbers he reviewed told him, and it's probably part of the packet he provided the front office staff to consider in their evaluations of the prospects of trading Subban for Weber.
That is the kind of statement that would get most analytics pushers thrown right out of an NHL board room, though. Weber is widely viewed, among NHL decision makers, as one of the very best in the game. While calling someone average may not be as hot a take as saying they're simply not good, in this case, you could see Pfeffer's comments being considered borderline blasphemy to the executives who build teams for a living.
Weber remains one of the flashpoint players who will bring about debate from the people who prefer to evaluate with their eyes and those that give more weight to what the underlying numbers say. That's been true for a few years now.
The veteran blueliner has often had really good traditional stats like goals and assists. Over the last four years, he ranks sixth among all defensemen with 180 points, just two points away from third-most. Subban is second with 202, though. He also has a lot of the physical attributes traditionally associated with defensemen like size, physicality, a general nastiness, etc. Weber is also heavily valued for the intangibles, too, like leadership and character and what not.
On the other side, his possession metrics have not been amazing over his career. While his possession rates have steadily improved over the last four years, that may be more an indication of the changes in the Predators than it is in Weber. They're a better team now than they were four years ago and they actually possess the puck at a higher rate with Weber off the ice. On top of that, Weber has spent the bulk of his career with a high-end defensive partner - first Ryan Suter, then Roman Josi. He won't have that in Montreal, which could end up being cause for concern.
With all of that said, Weber's reputation has not been built up solely by the traditional understanding of the game. He's hit 20-plus goals three times in his career, including last season. His shot is among the best in the game, he has been selected to the NHL's end-of-season all-star teams on four occasions, including twice on the first team. Weber is also a three-time Norris Trophy finalist, but has not yet won the award. On top of that, he has been lauded by opponents as being one of those guys they hate playing against and is considered to have an intimidating presence on the ice. Their unique is important in the overall evaluation as the ones who have to deal with him in the corners.
By many measures, Weber is a good-to-great defenseman in the NHL. There is still reason to believe the Habs are going to end up the losers on this deal, though.
Weber is four years older than Subban. He's also under contract for the next decade, meaning he'll be 41 when it expires. It is reasonable to assume that he's already played his best hockey and the Habs are going to get his declining years. That doesn't equate that he'll be an "average" NHL defenseman over that period of time, though.
Pfeffer, who is only 21 years old, is a fascinating figure and is considered by many as one of the bright minds in analytics today. He has consulted with Hockey Canada on their national teams, which have mostly been very successful. That's a pretty big job to have already.
His statement may be inflammatory, but his insight probably shouldn't be wholly dismissed. Seeing the game with a different set of eyes and in a different way shouldn't be viewed as a threat to the traditional ways of hockey. Having cold analysis that runs counter to conventional wisdom can be welcome in the interest of checks and balances.
We know that in this instance, Pfeffer was ignored and ultimately let go, but that doesn't devalue the role of analytics in front offices. When a team is making a deal as big as the one the Canadiens did by trading Subban for Weber, they should want a lot of opinions and there should almost always be someone willing to play devil's advocate. Covering every single angle, even the ones that may be off the beaten path, only makes for more informed decisions.