Laidlaw's latest cage match - PK Subban vs. Kris Letang

I have been waiting for months, nay years, to spring a Kris Letang vs. Erik Karlsson Cage Match. It feels like it should be a compelling matchup. The problem is every chance Letang gets to sneak ahead he goes and gets hurt. He’s now officially on Dobber’s Band-Aid Boy list. Injuries are always going to be a problem with him – there’s just no avoiding that now. So as much as I would love to spout on about how Letang could be a better bet than Karlsson in a fantasy league I can’t because he can’t stay healthy long enough for that to be a reasonable possibility. And yes Karlsson is out with that gross Achilles slicing incident, which caused us to demote him from god-status to demi-god, but the freak of nature may actually play on Thursday! He’s back up to god status – nothing can hold him back. It feels like it’s taken Karlsson less time to get back from this Achilles cut than it has for Letang to get back from his groin pull (and that’s only part hyperbole). Seriously, I would love to do this Cage Match, but Karlsson is in-human. We’ve got to find a better comparison.

Enter Pernell-Karl Subban.


PK Subban has taken his game up a whole other level after holding out early this season, which completely justifies the whole ordeal on his end. The only question is how did 29 other teams not pounce on this with an offer sheet? We know that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that an offer sheet could be handed out because the Flames gave one to Ryan O’Reilly even though he would have had to clear waivers. (Sorry for that tangent, this just frustrates me.) The point is that PK is damn good and is well on his way to a Norris Trophy. He leads the league in defenseman scoring (Letang is second) and has done so in fewer games than most because of his aforementioned hold out (Letang has played fewer games because, duh, he’s a Band-Aid Boy).

In all, PK has 36 points in 40 games, which is a fantastic result but we’ve seen plenty of great half-seasons from defensemen, only to see them fizzle in the second half. There is no second half this year so we can’t really know what PK could do in a full season. All we know for sure is that Subban is finally fulfilling all the promise he’s shown.

Physically, Subban is one of the most gifted athletes in the league. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast and he’s agile. He’s got the complete package and he’s always had good instincts too. Those instincts have been refined with experience and he’s starting to make better and better decisions. The result – more responsibility, more minutes, more points – a huge win for poolies. But is his run sustainable?

For one, about two-thirds of PK’s points have come via the power play (23 to be exact). That’s a great stat and it’s largely because the Canadiens operate the fourth best power play in the league at 21.2%. This is a vast improvement over last season when the Canadiens had the third worst power play in the league at 14.3%. You could argue that PK’s personal improvements have a great deal to do with the turn-around of the power play. You could also argue that coaching has been a factor with new head coach Michel Therrien now behind the bench. Some player changes like moving out Mike Cammalleri and Erik Cole and bringing Michael Ryder and Brendan Gallagher may have helped but to me the big difference is that last year Andrei Markov was hurt and this year he has been healthy.

Markov is a power play genius. He’s one of the few defensemen in the game who you can truly call a power-play quarterback. In fact, he skates even more on the power play than Subban does, albeit barely so (4:42 vs. 4:34 per game), and has nearly as many power play points (22) as Subban. How will Subban and the rest of the Canadiens fare once Markov retires or if he gets hurt again? Remember Markov’s had about a thousand knee surgeries so we can hardly expect those wheels to last much longer even he plays a game that doesn’t necessarily rely on fantastic mobility.

It is worth noting that Markov also missed much of the 2010-11 season and the Canadiens managed a very respectable seventh in power play efficiency at 19.7% so perhaps Markov isn’t the be-all end-all when it comes to the Canadiens power play. Still, I think he’s very important and I’m not sure he can make it through a full season healthy. The good news is that Markov is not as old as you think he is. By no means is 34 a young age but for defensemen that play as cerebral a game as he does he could surprise with how long he lasts. Look at the likes of Nik Lidstrom and Kimmo Timonen as a couple of examples.

So we have every right to be sceptical but ultimately we shouldn’t blow the Markov argument out of proportion – it’s only one of many factors driving Subban’s breakout and as was mentioned before the first and foremost factor is Subban’s pure talent.

It helps that the Canadiens do have a nice roster surrounding Subban and Markov. Let’s start in goal where Carey Price (up until recently) is the type of goalie who gives the team the confidence it needs to go out and be aggressive offensively knowing that he can bail you out. Furthermore, Subban has a perfect complement in Josh Gorges, a stay-at-home type who again allows Subban to be aggressive. Up front the team has some real quality depth and they have some up and coming stars who will surely be with the team for a long time in Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. The Habs have a pretty good track record when it comes to developing talent so Subban would seemingly be in good hands long term, assuming he re-signs in Montreal following next season when he will presumably get properly compensated by someone.

Of course, with that compensation comes more responsibility. I’m sure you are wondering how a guy who plays as many minutes as PK (23:07 per game) could garner more responsibility. Well, with all the tools that PK has he should become a huge minute defender that is used in all situations. Think about what guys like Drew Doughty and Shea Weber have to do for their respective teams. It’s possible that Montreal maintains the depth necessary to shelter Subban and keep using him to the maximum for his offense but once you start paying a guy big bucks that often means one less guy in the lineup to play the tough minutes. Unlike in past seasons PK has really been sheltered by Therrien this season. Consider that last season Subban skated 24:17 per game but with over a minute less per game in power play time. Those minutes were instead spent on the penalty kill and at even strength. Part of the reason that PK is seeing more power play minutes that this improved Canadiens team is drawing more penalties this season (approximately one more for every two games) and in fact leads the league in power play chances (last season they were third).

Subban also benefits from seeing plenty of offensive zone starts. 53.7% of Subban’s even strength shifts start in the offensive zone, which is more than any Canadiens defenseman except for Tomas Kaberle and Davis Drewiske who are bit players when they even draw into the lineup.

It’s not hard to see why Therrien is using Subban in this manner. After all, you don’t want to waste Subban’s offensive gifts. We just have to wonder if Subban’s role expands to playing tougher minutes can he sustain this pace, particularly over an 82-game season. The good news on that front is Subban does not appear to be injury prone, at least not this early in his career. Ignoring his holdout, Subban has missed just five games in his NHL career, which gives him a huge leg up in this Cage Match.

That’s because we know Letang can’t stay healthy. I might be overreacting to this because I have him in several leagues but holy mackerel, stay in the lineup, buddy! Letang has missed at least eight games in every season he’s played except for a miraculous 2010-11 season where he somehow managed to play all 82. I suppose we can dream that it will happen again but of course we can’t count on it.

That’s basically the only reason to be down on Letang though. If you thought Subban had it nice let me just quickly remind you of the murderer’s row that Letang will get to play with for seemingly the next decade:

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, etc.

And that’s without mentioning the fact that Penguins GM Ray Shero has mastered the trade deadline. Maybe we cannot count on an influx of talent to Pittsburgh every year but every second year seems to work just fine. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that basically that entire murderer’s row are also Band-Aid Boys so at any moment Letang actually decides to play you can bet at least one of them has decided not to (as if they have a choice in the matter).

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the terrifying nature of the Penguins’ goaltending tandem. If Price allows Subban and the Canadiens to take risks then Marc-Andre Fleury punishes the Penguins for doing so and Tomas Vokoun just ain’t what he used to be. I know Fleury helped the Penguins to win the Cup once upon a time but he’s got to be one of the most terrifying goaltenders in the league right now.

The good news is that it doesn’t seem to matter. When Letang is healthy he’s an absolute gem who until recently was the only defenseman really capable of pushing Karlsson for the coveted Top Fantasy Defenseman title. When healthy Letang is basically a point-per-game defenseman as he has scored 77 points in his last 84 games (over two seasons of course). What we don’t know is if Letang can sustain that over a full season.

Letang has already established himself as one of the top minute-eating defensemen in the league – he’s currently seventh in the league skating 25:41 per game – and while a lot of those minutes come on the power play (4:46 per game) he also does plenty of heavy lifting on the penalty kill and at even strength. No one in Pittsburgh save for Malkin’s line receives a healthy number of offensive zone starts but Letang’s 47.2% is very low for a player with his offensive abilities. That’s good news though because since Letang is productive even while playing large, tough minutes we know that he’s not likely to regress.

The only problem is that ever since Letang started playing these huge minutes he has started to miss serious time with injuries. If he can’t keep himself in the lineup playing as much as he does he won’t ever reach his potential. Letang, like Subban, is due a big pay raise soon so with that there will certainly be no going back to sheltered minutes, especially not since the Penguins already have big deals for Crosby and Neal as well as another one likely coming for Malkin as well. We know from before when Letang signed his current deal that he felt real pressure to live up to it and pushed himself to be better and it paid off so we can be confident that Letang will do what he can to live up to this next deal but perhaps he’s trying to do too much and that’s why he’s getting so banged up all the time.

So both of these guys have question marks but I’m more confident in Letang’s talent. As a Letang owner in a few leagues I simply ask myself if I was offered Subban for Letang, do I say no? Invariably I do say no. Subban is younger but only by two-years (by the way, happy birthday Kris Letang!) and as much as I love the talent I don’t know for sure that he can keep his scoring pace for 82-games. Letang can’t play 82-games but if they both score 60 in a season and Letang plays fewer games how many points is his waiver wire replacement scoring? I guess I just can’t give up on him yet.

Note: For the sake of saving space I’m not considering multi-category pools here, just points only. If you care to have that discussion feel free to do so in the comments but as every multi-category pool is different you must explain your context.

Recent Cage Matches:

Eric Staal vs. Anze Kopitar 
Artem Anisimov vs. Shawn Matthias 
Zach Parise vs. Alex Ovechkin 


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