Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban has talent to burn, but so far he's made his mark more as a trash-talker. After a recent benching, can he learn to channel his passion into better play on the ice?
P.K. Subban will have shakier nights in his NHL career, although immediately after a 3--1 road loss to the Maple Leafs last Saturday, he could hardly imagine them. The Canadiens' rookie defenseman was on the ice for all of Toronto's goals, including an empty-netter after his shot from the point was blocked. His face was raked by an unpenalized high stick. He made an egregious giveaway. And the one time he did rush the puck, zigzagging out of Montreal's zone and shifting into third gear at the red line, the preseason Calder Trophy favorite wound up offside, ahead of a play after spending most of the night a step behind.
Normally Subban is no more disheartened by a poor game than a rooster is by a day the sun doesn't shine—he'll be back crowing tomorrow—but after a benching that lasted three games and desultory performances in losses to the Red Wings last Friday and then Toronto, he had found his volume control. "It's been tough just to make a pass," he said quietly. "I've got to find a way to get out of my zone. Right now it's just not happening. The puck's not bouncing my way... . I understand it's a process. It's the NHL. You're not going to get a week ... of not playing hockey and be the same player."
To which the rest of the league might say: good.
For a player as gifted as Subban—Montreal's best rushing defenseman since Larry Robinson 30 years ago, according to Hall of Fame winger Steve Shutt—the three-game timeout was a speed bump over which he eventually will pop a wheelie. But for opponents, his exile to the press boxes high in NHL arenas was a metaphor, because they suspect he looks down his nose at them.
Even out of uniform, performing in Canadien Idle, Subban was omnipresent last week. During an intermission panel on the Canadian sports network TSN, analyst Darren Pang compared Subban with Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and, in a classic Elmer Fudd moment, said that Pietrangelo goes about things "the white way." (Pang quickly apologized.) When Montreal frittered away a five-minute power play against the Senators at home on Dec. 7, Habs fans chanted "P.K!"—and not in praise of Ottawa's penalty kill.
In hockey-obsessed Montreal the irrepressible Subban, 21, has been embraced like no rookie since goalie Patrick Roy a quarter century ago. Fans do not want to shake his hand as much as exchange triple low fives, the exuberant slaps with which Subban and goalie Carey Price celebrate wins. Subban has just two goals in 29 regular-season and 14 playoff games, but he is already the Canadiens' Most Voluble Player.
Subban is a one-man on-ice filibuster. Nothing salacious—"We wouldn't allow that, because it's disrespectful," says veteran Montreal winger Mathieu Darche. No, mostly Subban harangues opponents with a playground you-can't-beat-me braggadocio, which has prompted one NHL assistant to observe, "It's almost like he's an athlete in a different sport."
"Some people take it one way," says Islanders center John Tavares, a friend of Subban's since youth hockey, "and some people take it the other." Which means poorly. Subban's critics think he leveraged a strong playoff month—he was recalled from the minors last spring and quickly became a 20-minute-plus, all-situations defenseman for a team that reached the Eastern Conference final—without genuflecting to the traditions of the game. They think he yaps too much, too soon. At least other players who personify the sound of fingernails on a blackboard—among them Rangers left wing Sean Avery and Stars center Steve Ott (box, page 72)—have had time to amass a body of work. Subban has alienated many NHL players two months into his first regular season.
"There haven't been many young guys who've come in and had the impact I've had," Subban said in an empty Canadiens dressing room on Dec. 3, the day after his benching. "I look at the playoffs, and the reason I made an impact is not because I sat back and watched Sidney Crosby skate around me or let him push me around after the whistle or chirp me or dominate me in the corner. No. It's because I was in his face. I let him know I was coming for him."
"He's a cocky guy," says Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, the 2010 Calder winner. "From what you hear around the league, players don't think he has the respect factor. Young guys have to earn respect. They don't think he's doing [that] by jawing with guys like Crosby."
Flyers captain Mike Richards last month surmised that P.K. stands for Punk Kid. For three games—all Canadiens victories, incidentally—P.K. stood for Parked Keester.
Actually P.K. stands for Pernell Karl. When he was born, his mother, Maria, thumbing through a movie magazine in her hospital bed, spotted a story about actor Pernell Roberts. The name clicked. Pernell for Adam Cartwright from Bonanza. Karl for his father. P.K.
If you look at the Subbans's albums, P.K. is always in the middle of the photos, center ring in a family circus. Karl, who emigrated from Jamaica to Ontario at age 11, nudged his eldest son toward hockey even though he had played basketball at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. Karl would finish work as vice principal of a Toronto adult-education program and drive P.K. downtown to the outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square. They would do the family skate, then stay to play pond hockey. This was the snow-globe ambience the NHL tries to re-create in its outdoor games: Sticks were dropped at mid-ice, and the younger Subban often was given the honor of choosing sides. Free-form hockey would last until one, sometimes two in the morning. Then Karl and P.K. would stop for a slice of pizza on the way home.
P.K. didn't have to get up until 11:30 a.m. His half-day of kindergarten was in the afternoon.
Those frosty nights are encoded in Subban's hockey DNA. For now, though, he's an artist of the expressionist school who plays for a paint-by-numbers coach. The conservative Jacques Martin did not hesitate to banish Subban to the press box after a 15-game stretch in which he had one goal and two assists—glum numbers for a defenseman with generous power-play time—though he doesn't want to suppress Subban's passion so much as channel it. "There's no [other Canadien] who can take the puck from behind the net and carry it to the other blue line," says Shutt. "Subban'll make mistakes, but the guy who made the most mistakes was Bobby Orr, because he always had the puck. Subban'll have the puck."
In youth hockey, "P.K. was a phenom," says Oilers center Sam Gagner, a boyhood opponent with whom Subban still scrimmages in Toronto on summer Sunday nights. "He was the only kid who could shoot a slap shot and raise it. When you can raise it at 10, that's lethal."
Subban still has a formidable slapper, distinctive because of a high, John Dalyesque takeaway with a curlicue at the top. (A long stick accentuates Subban's backswing. Most players' sticks stretch from ice to chin; his rises to his nose.) Yet Subban occasionally passes up a simple shot for a spin-o-rama, which is often better optics than tactics. Since the 2004-05 lockout Montreal has led the NHL in power-play percentage twice and been second once, thanks to a series of heavy shooters from the point: Sheldon Souray, Mark Streit and Marc-André Bergeron. With the excitable Subban as a principal triggerman this season, the Canadiens lagged in the bottom third of the league until a recent surge.
While Subban's freelancing strained the bounds of team structure, a third-period power play on Dec. 1 snapped it. Late in the man-advantage against the Oilers, as Montreal tried to pad a 3--2 lead, Subban batted a clearing attempt out of the air with astonishing hand-eye coordination. Then, going from brash to rash, he banged his stick on the ice, demanding the puck. When it didn't come, he dived in a misguided effort to keep the puck instead of backing out and ceding the zone. Gagner wound up scoring on a two-on-one break to force overtime.
Midway through the extra period, a short pass from Subban handcuffed winger Michael Cammalleri. Subban drifted toward the boards instead of holding his inside position, and when Cammalleri fumbled the puck, Subban was effectively out of the play, offering Oilers winger Dustin Penner a clear lane to the game-winning breakaway.
Subban went from a team-high 25:08 minutes to zero the next night in New Jersey. Said one Canadiens official, "I don't think the guys were unhappy when Jacques scratched him."
If Subban is not shy in the spotlight, he can thank the Flyers' Richards for shining it directly in his eyes. After a disputatious match on Nov. 16 in Montreal, during which Subban intervened in a beef between Richards and Canadiens winger Andrei Kostitsyn, Richards told Montreal sports radio station Team 990 that Subban "hasn't earned respect. It's just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here and so much as think that he's better than a lot of people... . Hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because, uh, I'm not saying I'm going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky."
This scarcely veiled threat from a player who is hardly qualified to lecture on hockey etiquette—Richards's vicious blindside hit last season concussed Panthers winger David Booth—didn't faze Subban as much as force him to reflect. "P.K. and I discussed it," says Karl Subban, now a middle-school principal in Toronto's inner-city Jane-Finch corridor. "When an older player calls you out, you have to respect that. P.K. not only represents himself and his family, but the great Montreal Canadiens organization. He has to be cognizant of that. His veteran teammates don't want a distraction on the team."
P.K. might have become more contemplative, but he is not noticeably less rambunctious. Ten days after the Richards contretemps, he had his first NHL fight, against Thrashers defenseman Zach Bogosian, who goaded him into fisticuffs by knocking his helmet off. (Subban landed one punch and hung on.) The following night, in the dying seconds of a Canadiens win over Buffalo, the usually contained Myers, Subban's teammate on Team Canada's gold medal defense in the 2009 world junior championships, chipped the puck through Subban's legs in order to take a run at him. And against Toronto last Saturday, Subban jawed with Maple Leafs center John Mitchell and captain Dion Phaneuf.
"I played with Alex Ovechkin his rookie year, when he scored against Philly in preseason and skated by their bench and winked," says 34-year-old center Jeff Halpern, who is in his first season with Montreal. "Everybody on our bench was like, Uh-oh, we're going to get our asses kicked. The question was, How do you take away somebody's enthusiasm? P.K.'s cut from the same cloth. I don't think he goes out of his way to showboat, but that energy... . A lot of top-end skill guys come down on him one-on-one, and you can actually hear him challenging [them]. I think in the future, more guys are going to come into the league with that kind of energy."
In other words P.K. Subban could mark the beginning of the NHL's generation yap.
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"THERE HAVEN'T BEEN MANY YOUNG GUYS WHO'VE COME IN AND HAD THE IMPACT I'VE HAD," SAYS SUBBAN.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
SPEED STICK Few can take the puck from behind the net to the other blue line like Subban (76, with Bruins forward Tyler Seguin).
SIDNEY WHO? Subban is proud of having gone after Crosby (87) physically and verbally, but other players thought it a sign of disrespect for an established star.
[See caption above]