- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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MONTREAL -- P.K. Subban headed behind his net Tuesday night with a Dallas Stars forechecker coming at him from each side. So the Montreal Canadiens blueliner deftly sent the puck along the boards and safely out of the zone.
For most, it was a nondescript play in what was another losing effort by his team in a season no fan in these parts will want to remember. But it is just such a play that reminds you of the many skills the 22-year-old Subban brings to the table, the kind of play four out of six defensemen in the league instead turn into a turnover after feeling the heat of the oncoming pressure. It takes high-end skill to turn that into a routine play.
Let's not kid ourselves: There have been giveaways off Subban's stick this season, to the tune of a team-leading 62 (the next-closest Canadien has 38).
And yet, you have to have the puck to begin with to be able to give it away, and you have to be on the ice plenty -- and Subban leads Montreal in ice time at north of 23 minutes a game.
In what has become a dreary and disappointing season in the NHL's most passionate market, the team's most passionate player has at times become a lightning rod for discontent, feeling the brunt of the coaching staff after mistakes turn into goals for the other team.
And yet Subban is also immeasurably talented, a joy to watch at times, gifted with the kind of puck-moving skill necessary to key the transition game in today's NHL, plus a physicality that can knock opponents on their backsides and an ever-improving defensive awareness.
On a team that needs re-tooling, he is part of the trifecta that the Canadiens must build around: Carey Price in goal, emerging goal-scorer Max Pacioretty on the wing and Subban on the blue line. Those are the three horses on this team.
But it's Subban who at times infuriates coaches, sometimes his own teammates, and certainly often the opposition.
Is it arrogance or confidence? Something about him both delights the home fans and rubs others the wrong way.
I know this: I'd want this guy on my team, because once he finds his ceiling, he's going to contend for the Norris Trophy.
You just have to live with the up-and-down journey on the way there.
"I'd freakin' take him in a heartbeat," an NHL GM, who requested anonymity, told ESPN.com this week. "No question about it. He's a great young talent. He can do things few young defensemen can do. I don't care about the other stuff. He'll mature as a person and as a player. I can live with that. The Canadiens would be crazy to ever deal him."
Yes, they would.
Before he arrived in Montreal, Subban was viewed by many as a high-risk offensive defenseman. In a short time, he's developed into a reliable shutdown defenseman who plays lots of difficult minutes and does so relatively successfully for a player his age. He's also consistently one of the last players off the ice after practice, which points to his work ethic, but that's something that isn't mentioned often.
In many ways, he might be one of the most misread players in the NHL.
"He's a real talented player, but will he be a superstar? I don't think so, but a star for sure," said a rival NHL scout. "Right now, he's a top-four defenseman on a really good team, and he's a top-two defenseman on an average team. He can play an all-around game, and on nights he's focused he can be the best player on the ice. But he's immature. He needs time to grow. That's what coaching is for. He needs to be coached. There's work to do there but it's worth it with a player of that talent."
Again, he's only 22. This is his second full NHL season. The best is yet to come for Subban, taken 43rd overall in the 2007 entry draft.
"It's definitely been a good season to learn from," Subban said during a sitdown interview with ESPN.com this week.
"It's hard to compare myself to the other 21- and 22-year-old defensemen in the league because they probably haven't gone through half the things I've gone through playing in Montreal. But that being said, it's made me such a better player. I'm confident I can play anywhere else in the league and I wouldn't have any problems. Playing in Montreal is a unique experience and I love it. I love playing in this pressure-cooker. I love the attention our team gets. This is what you want. As a young player coming into the NHL, you want to be in the middle of everything. I really thrived on it."
The kid oozes passion when he talks about the game and the hopes and dreams he has for himself within it.
"I want to be one of the best defensemen that's ever played in the NHL," Subban said. "I want to be like Nick Lidstrom and be able to have that presence on and off the ice. That comes with time. Every day that goes by I understand that sometimes it's experience, things take time, you can't push it. You want to be that guy but you just have to go about your daily job and next thing you know, one day you will be that guy. But it takes time. I'm enjoying every moment of it. Hopefully one day I can be as successful as a guy like Lidstrom."
Most young players wouldn't dare even mention a legend like Lidstrom when discussing their career aspirations. But that's Subban -- he's not afraid to do that.
Nor was he afraid to chip his opponents from the moment he stepped in as a fresh-faced rookie as a late-season call-up in the spring of 2010. That annoyed players around the league in no time.
Sorry boys, that's not going to change, Subban says.
"I'm playing against the better players on the other team and my job is to shut them down," he said. "When I first came into the league, I'm sure when other guys were playing against this kid who just came up from Hamilton (of the AHL) and yet has all this confidence and he's on the ice with a chip on his shoulder and he's in your ear, I'm not going to like it -- especially if I'm Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or any player that's played in the league for a long time. But that's my job.
"It's safe to say that maybe if I didn't play in Montreal I wouldn't have all this attention around me. But that's what happens. This is a place that's under a microscope, this is a team that's gone through so much the last three years, and I'm fresh meat, fresh blood. You know what? I'm trying to make a name for myself and make my stamp in the NHL. That's the way I know how to do it."
He slaps his hand on his thigh and laughs when asked about one of his favorite lines he's delivered on the ice in his short NHL career.
"This is something I'll remember for the rest of my life," he said. "My first game last season against Pittsburgh, I had that game circled on my calendar because I knew after we beat them out of the playoffs [in spring of 2010] and shut the Igloo down and did all that great stuff, I knew the first time we'd play Pittsburgh the following season that Crosby was coming for me. Because in that playoff series, I was in his face, same with Josh [Gorges] and Hal [Gill]; that series was so emotional. Nobody knew who I was at that point. They were like, 'Who is this guy skating all over the ice, he's hitting guys, chirping after the whistle?'
"I knew that Crosby was coming for me the following year. The first shift, I go behind the net and I got hammered by Sid. The crowd in Pittsburgh goes nuts. After the whistle I bump him and he goes, 'I've been waiting all day for you.' And I went, 'I've been waiting all summer,'" Subban said with a hearty laugh. "He just kind of nodded and went to the bench. I love playing against a guy like that. Not only because he's the greatest player in the game but because you can just see the compete level on him. He's a world-class player."
The smile disappears when Subban is asked about his being scratched earlier this season by interim coach Randy Cunneyworth and a subsequent in-game benching during a win over Detroit. Important lessons for a young player; the Canadiens coaching staff trying to send a message about accountability. He's played his best hockey of the season over the past few weeks, so perhaps the message was understood.
But Subban views the benching from a different perspective.
"It was difficult when I got sat out because it wasn't like it was just myself," he said. "There were a lot of guys that weren't performing. I remember before I got sat out that I myself took the blame for two of the games, where I said I wasn't playing my best. I thought as a team we weren't being accountable, we weren't holding each other accountable. ... But I've always been the guy over the years, no matter at which level, that the coach makes an example of. And I'm fine with that. When I got scratched, the only thing I didn't want was for everybody to make a big deal out of it. Because I knew I'd be back in and once I got back in I'd probably be playing the most minutes. But it wasn't about that. I think it was about sending a message to the whole team."
Well, actually not. It was absolutely a message meant for him and him only. But you get the sense that Subban prefers to look at things a certain way in order to preserve his sanity in this crazed hockey market.
"I guess you could say I'm one of those players that if you're going to make an example of, everyone knows, 'Maybe if P.K. is playing 26-27 minutes a night, if he can get benched, well then I can get benched too, so I got to play better,'" mused Subban.
"That's how I look at it. Whether it's right or wrong, I think that's a positive way to look at it."
Subban is a glass half-full kind of guy. He'd prefer to think about the highlights, not the lowlights. He smiles broadly again when asked about how he feels when the Bell Centre crowd chants, "P.K.! P.K.!" as it often does before he takes off for an end-to-end rush. Subban and Price are the two players afforded that kind of name chanting from the Habs faithful.
Again, many a player, as in the humble hockey tradition, would feign ignorance or pretend they're too focused during a game to hear what the fans are chanting. Not Subban.
"Oh yeah, you never miss it. It's a privilege," he said. "Not every player gets to experience that. Since I've been in Montreal, the fan base and the community have been so supportive. I've never had a time where I felt the fans weren't behind me. Obviously the media have their job, and maybe some of the things that are said I won't like, but that has never changed the way the fans have supported me. And quite frankly, myself and Carey are very lucky to have that here, to have experienced that."
What we're looking at is the heir apparent to Andrei Markov, a wonderfully gifted blueliner who arguably has been Montreal's MVP for the better part of a decade but whose wonky knees knocked him out of the lineup for most of the past two seasons and certainly put in question his future effectiveness, at least compared to the high standard the Russian set for himself.
Subban has larges skates to fill in that regard, and not everyone is convinced he can pull it off.
"He's a guy that's played in the league for 10-12 years, he's played All-Star Games, he's played Olympics, he's done all that and I haven't even had a sniff of that yet," Subban said. "As far as filling his shoes, he's always going to be Andrei Markov and I'm always going to just be P.K. I just try to do the best job I can."
Whether people like it or not.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.