Canada's World Cup Roster: No Subban?

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Canada has an overabundance of right-shooting defensemen available for the World Cup. Guess who draws the short straw?

The World Cup of Hockey will be held in Toronto starting September 17, featuring eight teams, including Canada, U.S.A., Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Team Europe and Team North America. Team Canada’s coaching staff will be led by Mike Babcock, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Given Babcock’s penchant for lefty-righty defense pairings, as well as his insistence on what he calls “taking care of the puck”, hockey fans and pundits have become almost obsessed with determining which of Canada’s plethora of elite right-shot defenders make the cut. Hockey Canada laid the controversy to rest by releasing its complete World Cup roster on Friday afternoon. While the confirmed lineup is indeed a formidable one, there’s one particular name that’s noticeably absent from that list, isn’t there? Yup, there sure is, and fans of Pernell Karl Subban are none-too pleased about this “oversight”.

Subban is a larger-than-life hockey personality whose marketing appeal is undeniable. He is charismatic, animated, and full of enthusiasm in everything he does, from choosing his wardrobe to his now-famous starting lineup announcement. And let’s not forget his charity and community work, which can only be considered above-and-beyond what could ever be reasonably expectated of any sports celebrity. His ten million dollar commitment to the Montreal Children’s Hospital is the largest ever made by a Canadian sports icon. Without question, Subban is a superstar both in life and on the ice. So why the omission? Shouldn’t one of the sport’s, and the country’s biggest revenue magnets be honored with opportunity to bring the nation he calls home, hockey glory?

Of the seven defensemen selected, four of those are right-handed. Those four are Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo and Brent Burns. The lefties selected are Duncan Keith, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Jake Muzzin.

Did Babcock and Co. get it right? Did his NHL allegiance to the Maple Leafs impact the final decision? As silly as it sounds, some may support the notion, however, the absence of any Maple Leafs on the roster, as well as the inclusion of goaltender Carey Price, who missed almost the entire 2015-16 season due to injury, challenges the viability of such an argument.

Back to Mr. Subban…

There’s very little to dislike about the man, who attacks the game of hockey with the joy and enthusiasm of a child. In any other nation, Subban would be a top-two pairing guy all day long, but the problem – the only problem – is that Canada is just too deep at the position he plays and there is arguably no one of Weber, Doughty, Pietrangelo or Burns that he could usurp in order to earn a spot on the right side.

The one player that gives us pause is Pietrangelo, until we look at his body of work in international competition. In 25 games of international hockey, Pietrangelo has six goals and fifteen assists for 21 points. That’s at both junior and senior levels. He was also named the top defenceman of the 2011 IIHF tourney, in which he had two goals and three assists across seven games. He played in all six of the the 2014 Winter Olympics games, contributing an assist. In short, his overall international resume is pretty stellar.

Conversely, Subban has three goals and seven assists across twenty international competitions, 18 of those played at the junior level. Not bad, but are those totals, along with his high-risk, high-reward style as conducive to tournament play as Pietrangelo’s? That’s a pretty tough argument to make, but we can’t call it a no-brainer, either. Assuming P.K. would be a definite defensive liability suggests a certain bias against the man, and there’s simply no denying what he could add in terms of a powerplay weapon from the point, either. Part-and-parcel with that bigger-than-life aura is the tendency to have his foibles amplified and re-lived in high-definition ad nauseam. The ongoing narrative that Subban is a defensive liability is generally not supported in the statistics community, and frankly, the assets, especially his work with the man advantage, are as obvious as his presence every time he enters a room.But do they outweigh the potential downside?  Stats generally rely on a large sample size to have any real validation, and in a short tournament environment, those defensive gaffes sports television likes to highlight could overshadow the positive. Again, all we can do is speculate.

Ok, so maybe Subban doesn’t beat out any of the other righties. Let’s run with that. But, if you had to pick a d-man for your club, would you really take Jake Muzzin over Subban? Not to take anything away from Muzzin, who is an assist machine in both NHL and international competition, but between the two, is P.K. not the guy you really want? Well, if you’re Mike Babcock, apparently not. It would seem that the coach’s preference for pairing lefties and righties takes precedence.

Let’s not pretend, even with our favorite hockey analytics websites all laid out in front of us, to have the resources or the know-how to effectively second-guess one of the best coaches in the history of the game. For reasons known perhaps only to Babcock and his inner circle, the group they have selected to represent Canada is the group they believe that they can get dialed in and committed to a team concept and structure with the highest degree of efficacy and likelihood of success. If there is anything Canada has been guilty of in past international competitions, it may be that they have loaded up too heavily on sheer firepower with little regard for the intricacies and subtleties of winning the game, shift by shift, matching opponents’ skill with the kind of assets that can suffocate and smother you into virtual ineffectiveness. There is a delicate balance that must be respected in order to avoid the kind of fire-wagon hockey that makes predicting any outcome next to impossible, and the right mix of players allows coaches to establish a structure and get their on-ice personnel to buy in.

The intention of this piece is to neither defend nor challenge this years’ choices, but to simply analyze them with a view to (hopefully) gaining some insight into what went into the final decision. It is conceivable that Babcock plans to reunite Muzzin with his teammate (Doughty), and based on Doughty’s 2014 comments to Matt Larkin of The Hockey News, that might not be a bad plan:

“Muzzin’s a great player, he has so much skill and we love playing together…the one thing we’re so good at is, when teams get in on the forecheck, we don’t spend time in our own zone, because we use each other to break out the puck”. He added: He’s grown so much defensively that I’m hoping for many years we can be partners together” 

While they weren’t regularly paired up last season, there is history and more importantly, chemistry there, which Babcock could put to excellent use. Considered Corsi darlings, the Los Angeles Kings teammates make for a low-risk second pairing who could diffuse the pressure on a top pairing, presumably, of Keith and Weber, and generate considerable offense in their own right, making the Canadian squad a challenge to contain.

If the end goal was to ensure bums on seats and promote the event, Subban makes the most sense of any hockey player  not named Price, John Tavares or Sidney Crosby. But, we all know that neither Canada in general, nor Toronto in particular will have any trouble packing the barn every time the Canadian team laces them up, and the goal here is to engineer a roster that can win a championship for the country. That’s all Mike Babcock and everyone else who was part of the selection process cares about. It’s really all they should care about.

P.K. Subban is a hockey maverick; occasionally reckless, brash, and sickeningly self-confident, but he’s earned his accolades, even if he’s his own greatest cheerleader. The skills and the results alike, speak for themselves. Unfortunately for Subban, those of his contemporaries speak just a little louder…at least to Babcock.

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