Make way for P.K. Subban
And a run for the Norris Trophy, perhaps?
By SEAN GORDON
Saturday, April 13, 2013 Print Edition, Page S6
MONTREAL -- Vicious slap shots and open-ice hits naturally grab people's attention, but true genius is revealed in the subtleties.
It's hard to overemphasize how difficult it is to patrol the blueline in the NHL, and those who do it best have a gift for spatial awareness, body positioning and for sniffing out trouble, then extricating themselves from same.
Often, it's the stuff that happens when the television cameras are pointed elsewhere.
In a recent game against Boston, Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges stepped up just outside his own blueline to help out a teammate along the boards.
The puck squirted behind him into the Montreal end, but his partner, P.K. Subban, who had raced across the ice to his left in anticipation, quickly scooped it up and fired a hard, pinpoint diagonal pass to centre David Desharnais, who set sail up the far side of the ice.
The pass was one thing, being there to make it is another.
This week in Buffalo, Subban chased down a loose puck behind his net, held off the Sabres' Brian Flynn, then casually made a one-handed dish to an open man. Later on the same shift, he created space for teammate Brian Gionta to skate away by deftly shielding Flynn.
"He's better than anyone I've seen so far at being able to hold off a fore-checker, still get his feet moving, and make the breakout pass," Gorges said of his younger teammate. "Whether it's a five-foot pass or getting it out off the glass, his ability to shield guys off and make the play is second to none."
The catalogue of such events in Subban's sublime season verges on the inexhaustible. No other defenceman in the league creates space for himself in quite the same way.
The Toronto-born Subban leaves no one indifferent, but those who love to boo him - a vast and growing category - are blinding themselves to the small things that combine to make a big player.
Taken together, these moments provide far more compelling reasons than mere points for why Subban must win the Norris Trophy and be thrust into the Team Canada picture for Sochi.
Yes, Subban leads the league in goals and points from defencemen, and he and veteran Andrei Markov have become the most dangerous power-play rearguards in the NHL.
The list of people who bring Subban's all-round skill set to the table - passing, stickhandling, abrasive physical presence, defensive IQ, special-teams ability, shooting, speed and elusiveness - is short (the only player who is comparable on all those fronts is Los Angeles Kings star Drew Doughty, and perhaps Pittsburgh's Kristopher Letang).
It's the defensive work, the growing emotional maturity, as well as durability and conditioning - Subban was in excellent shape when he turned up after a short contract impasse - that have impressed teammates and opponents alike.
This past week, he was lumped in with Markov as a "great player" by no less an authority than Alex Ovechkin.
Hall of Fame defenceman Serge Savard recently averred that Subban has "superstar talent."
Should he win the Norris, he would be the first Hab to do so since Chris Chelios, now a special adviser to the Detroit Red Wings, who told a La Presse reporter at a recent old-timers game in Montreal that: "I don't want to pump his tires too much in case we end up playing them in the finals or something . . . does he have the potential [to be a superstar]? Absolutely."
Chelios sees similarities between himself and Subban, whom he played against once in the minors three years ago - and between Subban and Doughty - although he said: "I can't remember back to think if I did the goofy things that he does. I'm sure I did, but it's been so long."
The "goofy things" - which can be taken to refer to flamboyant end-to-end rushes, postwhistle yapping, exaggerated pantomimes aimed at drawing penalties - have been kept to a minimum, which may partly explain Subban's effectiveness.
Though he has been loath to talk about himself this season, particularly when the subject turns to the Norris, Subban said it's not that he's different or restrained, just a little older and more focused.
"Everybody learns through experience," he said in a recent interview.
That experience includes being attacked by some hockey pundits as a me-first player, and suggestions that his contract demands were greedy; this is a man playing like someone who wishes to silence his critics.
The irrepressible Subban isn't yet the finished article. There have been benchings this year, ill-advised penalties, and mistakes. Most recently he overplayed a two-on-one in Buffalo on Thursday, leading to a short-handed goal.
But he's also made huge strides, say teammates, both on the ice and off.
"He's definitely toned it down, I guess, I don't know how to say it, but he's definitely been a great team guy, he's been putting in the work all year," Habs goalie Carey Price said.
The most eloquent argument for Subban's Norris candidacy will surely be his point-per-game pace this season.
But dig deeper and the numbers reveal much: Subban makes the other defencemen on his team better, and he has become a dominant possession player.
"Who's playing better than P.K. right now?" Price said. "It's tough to think of names."
A more neutral observer might point out Subban averages 30 seconds per game or so less on the penalty kill than his closest rivals for the Norris (Letang and Minnesota's Ryan Suter), and there's a statistical argument he consistently faces inferior opposition than does, say, Boston's Zdeno Chara.
That's true. But those numbers are skewed by the fact Subban saw basically no action on the penalty kill and played limited minutes on a third defensive pair for his first 10 or so games.
Some of that was down to earning new coach Michel Therrien's trust, a lot of it had to do with the sterling play of Raphael Diaz.
Since Diaz went down to a concussion in late February, Subban's ice time has increased substantially - it has dipped below 22 minutes only once in the last 20 games (he has averaged 23:05 this season but closer to 26 in the last month), and he has piled up eight goals and 26 points over that stretch. In the last 10 games, he has also taken more minutes on the penalty kill.
He has also been spending a lot more time on a shut-down pair with Gorges. Their defensive responsibilities will only increase now that Alexei Emelin has suffered a season-ending injury.
Price reckons the best is yet to come.
"It's all about experience and maturity," he said.