MONTREAL, QC.– Find yourself in a retail store line in December, and there’s a good chance you’ll overhear a conversation about hockey or the weather. Just lucky that my line had both.
The two gentlemen ahead of me had been talking hockey, but quickly switched gears when one noticed The Gazette headline that read “Snowfall in Montreal could hit 40 centimetres.” Prior to the city’s first winter storm, Environment Canada had predicted four to five centimetres of snow would fall.
“Dumb bastards,” said the man with the Canadiens cap obviously not impressed with government meteorologists, “betcha P.K. coulda done better!”
I’m not exactly sure what he meant. Does P.K. have some expertise with Doppler radar? Perhaps the Habs fan was just acknowledging that the rookie defenseman has some extra time on his hands.
But increasingly, whatever the question, for some fans and media, the answer is P.K. Subban.
When Montreal’s five-minute man-advantage was looking anemic against the Senators, some fans in the Bell Centre chanted “PeeKay, PeeKay!” Three games with your hero in the press box helps one forget that Subban didn’t provide the imagined spark for the power-play in the 25 games he was in the lineup. Subban has one power-play goal, the same contribution as Josh Gorges, with far fewer opportunities.
The issue with Subban is not so much about talent, but attitude, and its effect on his game. The current edition of the Canadiens features superb goaltending, speed, and skill. But the glue that holds it all together is team chemistry.
More than at any time in the recent past, the players like each other and want to play for one another. There’s no room for the enigmatic artist. And the player who allowed his agent to publicly trash a teammate is thankfully gone.
Former GM Bob Gainey’s decision to remake the Canadiens has been unfairly maligned. Many are only now understanding his vision: the power of a united dressing room with players committed to going to the wall for each other.
It is incumbent on Subban to find a way to fit into that team philosophy without sacrificing his creativity on the ice or his personality off. He can play less selfishly by limiting his shift length. Subban can make less reckless choices and endeavour to be more responsible defensively.
I was called crazy for suggesting that Subban needed to sit out two games for the message to be taken to heart. Some, like Steve Farnham, felt he shouldn’t have been scratched at all. But I’m also the first one to say that the longer his exile goes on, the impact of the message diminishes.
My friend Chris Grenon was quick to add, “and the lesson of humility is probably not very effective when 21,273 are chanting [Subban’s name].” So true.
It’s time for Subban to be re-inserted in the lineup. Some will tell you that presents the coaching staff with a tough problem, namely, who to take out?
It would seem to me that’s precisely why an adept personnel manager is required behind the bench. He needs to be able to define roles, clearly convey expectations, instill confidence and motivate his charges even when difficult decisions have to be made. The coach must also recognize that a one-size fits all approach doesn’t work.
If all that’s needed is someone to spin the wheel to determine line combinations, TSN’s Maggie the Monkey will do.
GM Pierre Gauthier has done a good job finding role players for Jacques Martin. The coach has a knack for getting the best out of players like Tom Pyatt, Mathieu Darche, Jeff Halpern and Alexandre Picard. While they can play a significant supporting role, it should be obvious this group isn’t going to carry the Canadiens very far alone nor should they be allowed to hamper the development of younger players.
Yannick Weber has played extremely well and has shown that he can be an upgrade to the first powerplay unit with his cannon from the point and his ability to find shooting lanes. He has not only earned the right to stay but can be a valuable asset.
It would be a mistake to view the spot in the line-up as a competition between Weber and Subban. Yet, some will insist. Martin has even compared situation to Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak last season.
Some will incorrectly view the result as a success. In truth, as conceived by Martin, it is an archaic, destructive method of coaching which inevitably produces a casualty. A more progressive mind should be able to produce a win-win environment.
Picard seems to be the odd man out. He has mostly played above expectations but still suffers coverage lapses and offers little when the Canadiens have the man advantage. While he has filled in admirably, Picard is the logical candidate to head to the press box.
It is also an opportunity for coach Martin to use the defensive depth to provide an occasional day off for his veteran defenders. If framed properly, it could be positive not punitive and would ensure that players like Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik are paced for the long season.
Two things are obvious. Dressing seven defenseman with one playing forward on the fourth line has been a failed experiment and shouldn’t be a consideration. Also, fans should prepare themselves for Subban to be a return visitor to the press box occasionally as he goes through a maturation process and acceptance of the team concept.
We can also expect the media circus surrounding Subban to continue.
Earlier this week was “Bodyguard-gate” with The Gazette’s Dave Stubbs tweeting “Subban in the press box this period. Three security guards in his vicinity to keep wretched media at bay. Honest.” The number of protective personnel was later trimmed to one by Stubbs while others, including Subban, Canadiens senior management and the Team 990’s Andie Bennett denied that any bodyguards were specifically assigned.
Such is the life of a charismatic rookie in Montreal as he craves to be in the spotlight and the media obsession with him. Subban would be well-advised to tone it down a notch for his own sake and relations with his teammates.
Subban is an exciting, talented defenseman who can be a key component for the Habs of the future. But he is not there yet. Subban will have to be a more reliably responsible player while focusing less on the cloud of hero-worship that hovers over him. Let’s hope that the Canadiens management can provide him the proper guidance and motivation to maximize his potential.
Somewhere in here is a lesson about fans launching their knight in shining armor onto a pedestal that he is not yet ready to mount. But this is Montreal, where hockey players are celebrities who are capable of anything — including predicting the elements.
(Photo by Francois Lacasse, Getty Images)