Some things in life are not terribly fair. And in the case of the P.K. Subban trade, much of the trade has become a referendum on the merits of Shea Weber. Last I checked, Weber didn’t ask to be traded to one of the most hockey-mad cities on the planet for a player who was universally loved by its fan base. And former Canadiens analytics consultant Matt Pfeffer, whose comments to thn.com about Weber have landed him in the crosshairs of critics, doesn’t deserve to be put through the wringer the way he has.
I feel badly about the latter. Pfeffer is a 21-year-old who is a bright, hard-working kid who’s doing some groundbreaking work when it comes to analytics. We had a very candid conversation Friday afternoon about the Weber trade, perhaps in retrospect for him, a little too candid. He spoke about the trade of course, but also the place of analytics in the game and how hockey is still finding its way. But the comment that seems to be drawing the most ire was when he said: “There’s nothing wrong with being average in the NHL. An average NHLer is worth a heck of a lot and that’s what Shea Weber is.”
That was published Monday. Later that day, Pfeffer sent out a tweet that said: “Deeply regret negative comments made to THN regarding Weber and Canadiens. They do not represent my true feelings on player of club.”
To his credit, Pfeffer did not claim to be misquoted or taken out of context. What I think he meant to say was that in terms of 5-on-5 play, the numbers say Weber is actually a pretty average defenseman in the NHL these days. He turns 31 in less than a month and analytics tells us that players that age will almost certainly continue to trend downward. But his superior play on the power play and penalty kill, along with his leadership qualities, elevate him to the above-average category.
Let’s look at some of the evidence. According to nhl.com’s own enhanced statistics, 193 defensemen played 40 or more games last season. Weber’s 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage was 51.07, which placed him 63rd. His 5-on-5 shooting percentage was 6.9, which placed him 129th. His shot attempts against were 1,318, which placed him 163rd. One of those was above average, two of them below average. And as Pfeffer pointed out, Weber’s 5-on-5 goal differential is 0.18 percent, which means the Predators score basically as many goals even-strength when Weber is on the ice as when he’s off. That actually screams average.
But then again, nobody in the league scored more goals per 60 minutes played of 5-on-4 than the 3.19 Weber did this past season. And Weber was fifth in the league behind Kevin Shattenkirk, Keith Yandle, Drew Doughty and Brent Seabrook with 5.39 points per 60 minutes played at 5-on-4. He plays almost three minutes a game shorthanded and was ninth in the NHL in overall ice time this past season. Those are elite numbers.
And as analytics expert Garret Hohl pointed out on Twitter, nobody is saying that Weber was not once an elite, Norris Trophy-level defenseman, but, “the last four years things have been changing. His impact on shot differential has been getting worse and worse. His expected goal differential has been falling slightly lower than his shot differentials…I think Weber is still great at some things (elite shooter and physical menace), but he’s starting to be poorer at other things. As he gets older, those poor things are starting to become more and more noticeable at accelerating rate.”
So, Weber is an average player at even strength and an elite player on special teams. But 5-on-5 makes up roughly 80 percent of the game. And when Hockey Canada named its first round of players for the World Cup of Hockey team, Weber was on it, while Subban didn’t even make the team. So much of what makes Weber an above average player can’t be quantified, while the numbers point out that, at least when his team is playing 5-on-5, he’s average and trending downward.
That’s probably what Matt Pfeffer meant when he talked about Shea Weber. I wouldn’t know for sure because Pfeffer appears to be laying low after the story appeared on thn.com. So far, repeated attempts to reach him have been unsuccessful. It would be a shame if one ill-advised comment about Shea Weber defined Pfeffer. Here’s hoping it doesn’t. People in the hockey establishment slip up all the time and are welcomed back with open arms by teams and the league. It should be the same with a young man who is bright and has a lot to offer.