Daily Hab-it: Subban's apprenticeship begins
By Arpon Basu
Published Saturday, January 8, 2011 12:50AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:11AM EDT
"When I'm asked to step up my game is usually when I play my best. One thing that I've learned in hockey is you can get complacent, when you get too comfortable and you're playing well you can get complacent out there. Sometimes when the coach is asking you to step up and play better that's when you get excited to play again because they need me to play well."
Those words were spoken by P.K. Subban back on Nov. 15, two days after everyone watched in horror as Andrei Markov clearly re-injured his right knee in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
He was being looked to at the time as a possible solution to the very real probability that Markov would be gone for the long-term.
The way Subban was playing, just 17 games into the season, it was a natural person to look to as a prime candidate to fill that void.
Of course, we all know what happened after that, and it became very clear that perhaps Jacques Martin didn't feel Subban was such a natural choice after all.
Now fast forward to Friday, as Josh Gorges stood on a wooden box for the better part of a half hour and told the media how his own upcoming ACL surgery is eating him up inside (for my NHL.com story on that, click here, or click on the video player to the right to see his comments for yourself).
Subban would probably be the last person one would nominate to try and replace what Gorges brings to the Canadiens. In fact, as I asked Martin, you probably couldn't find more of a polar opposite to Gorges to fill his spot alongside Hal Gill and suddenly become a penalty killer, a role that would be seen as utter lunacy prior to the start of the season, and may in fact still be seen that way by some.
But Martin is not one of those people, and he politely disagreed with my assessment that Subban is the total opposite of Gorges. In his eyes, in fact, they are more alike than they are different.
"Hal has lots of experience, he's one our main leaders in the dressing room. He's a good influence on a player like P.K.," Martin said. "You say they're opposite, but I think in reality one of the strengths of Subban is to play good defence. People see him as an offensive player, and that may come, but right now his production has come really on the power play. I think he has a lot to learn offensively, as well as defensively. But to be matched up and be given a certain role is probably good for him. It will help him focus on his game."
I found that assessment to be extremely interesting for two reasons.
First, the growing legion of Canadiens fans hoping Martin gets fired will likely pounce on that to prove he's trying to turn Subban into some sort of defensive zombie. I really don't feel that's the case, and it's actually a pretty glowing endorsement for a player who has seen the depths of Martin's doghouse.
Could better defence lead to better offence?
But that last line from Martin, combined with Subban's words spoken nearly two months ago, paints an intriguing scenario.
Is it possible that being thrust into a defensive role may in fact allow Subban to start flourishing offensively? That being forced to adhere to the team's structure might allow Subban to improve his ability to read situations, and know just when he can deviate from that structure to bring his offensive tool box out at the appropriate times?
I think the biggest reason why Subban has not been able to impose himself offensively is that he's either chosen the wrong times to assert himself, or he's made it so obvious that's what he plans on doing that the entire building knows what's coming.
I don't know if having this clearly defined role will produce those kinds of results, but it should be fun watching how Subban adjusts to the situation.
Thus far, he hasn't looked out of place killing penalties, and I would agree with Martin that Subban's play in his own end has been surprisingly sound. Defending the rush is where he's run into the most problems, but against the cycle he's been very solid.
The loss of Gorges can't be underestimated, and in many ways it could be seen as more of a devastating blow than the loss of Markov. But if Subban comes out of this a more complete player, not only would it help the team enormously, it will make him that much better when Gorges returns next year.
Getting back to Martin, he had a pretty enlightening day.
In addition to his thoughts on Subban, he was obviously asked to give his impressions on Gorges and the prominent role he has taken on the ice and in the room.
"Josh made more of a commitment to his career halfway through the year last year," Martin said. "He realized what it takes to play at a certain level, the kind of commitment it takes not only on the ice, but off the ice in terms of preparation. I think Hal Gill has been a positive influence on helping Josh achieve what he's achieved."
There's that reference to Gill again.
We all saw what Gill brought to the team in last year's playoffs, but it becomes easy to forget sometimes in the regular season when he's not at his most valuable month of the season. I've been as guilty of it as anyone else.
But I'm starting to get the impression more and more that this, in many ways, is Gill's team.
Brian Gionta, by all accounts, is not the type of captain who will pull players aside and give them the straight goods, or stand up in the room and inspire the troops.
That role, it appears, belongs to Gill.
When Scott Gomez wanted the team to sacrifice defence to generate more at the other end, the player he butted heads with was Gill, and I think we can all ascertain who won that argument.
When Carey Price was still showing up his defencemen by openly blaming them for goals, the player who took him aside and told him to stop was Gill.
If you read between the lines of what Martin said about Gorges last season, about the commitment needed "off the ice in terms of preparation," I think you can tell what he's talking about. If Gill was the one who told Gorges it would be smart to arrive at the morning skate well rested and without a headache, then that's another one.
Now, it's Subban's turn.
I think when Pierre Gauthier decides whether or not he wants to bring Gill back next season, this intangible may enter into the equation more than anything he does on the ice.