There's a squall, gusting up to a blizzard, of commentary on Michel Therrien's relationship with Norris-winner P.K.Subban in the ever-edgy world of Habs watchers these days. Therrien doesn't seem excited to talk about Subban as a potential member of the Canadian Olympic team. He's spare with his praise, and discusses one of the NHL's best young defencemen in terms of his still being a developing prospect...and, of more concern to critics...a developing human being. At the same time, Therrien has not been reluctant about calling out Subban's mistakes.
All of this has observers talking about everything from Subban's attitude (too cocky), to his one-dimensional play (too much O, not enough D), to a possible undercurrent of racism against black players in hockey, to Therrien's mishandling of the best young player the Canadiens have had the pleasure to dress in twenty years. As evidence of any or all of these theories, we're presented with the facts that Therrien chooses not to sing Subban's praises publicly, while refusing to play him in the last couple of minutes of games or on the penalty kill.
That last one...P.K. on the PK, or more correctly, his absence there...has fans really puzzled. Why, we wonder, is the guy currently holding the title of best NHL defenceman not defending when his team needs help the most? A close look at the numbers both answers the question, and raises a much more fundamental one.
The quick glance shows Subban's stats average out to almost seven goals against per 20 minutes shorthanded. That's up from 3 goals against per 20 minutes last year. That's a big slip, and enough to make a coach who watches statistics cut a player's ice time on the PK. What's interesting, though, is a look at Subban's numbers BMT, or Before Michel Therrien.
Previous to Therrien's arrival, Subban, had a pretty steady average of about 3-3.5 goals against per 60 minutes shorthanded, or roughly 1 per 20 minutes on the PK, with a variety of partners. Playing around 2:30 minutes a game on the PK in two seasons under Jacques Martin, Subban usually ended up around third among Habs penalty killers in ice time. In those two seasons, the Canadiens' PK ranked 7th (in 2010-11, Subban's rookie season) with an 84.4% efficiency rate and 2nd (in 2011-12) with 88.6% success.
Since Therrien was hired, Subban's ice time on the PK has been cut by half. Last season, he played 1:27 minutes per game, and the Canadiens dropped to 23rd in the league in penalty kill success, at only 79.8%. That fell further to 76% in the Habs playoff loss to Ottawa, during which Subban played only 0:29 shorthanded per game. This year, he's playing less than a minute shorthanded on average. The team's weak early PK seems to be recovering, currently at 8th in the league, albeit with a fairly small sample size of games at this point. That success rate has also been boosted by a very strong last five games, which skews the numbers from the previous 11. The numbers say, then, that the Habs for two seasons under Martin saw Subban play more on the PK and the team's numbers were generally better.
When Therrien arrived and Subban's time was reduced, the penalty kill success rate declined. Even the recent improvement (including the worrisome number of risky shot blocks) suggests the team is compensating for Subban's absence, rather than thriving because of it. The coach has not publicly explained why he's decided to put the team's record at risk while he, in his words, "guides the thoroughbred."
Subban isn't perfect. No 24-year-old defenceman is. Still he is the best D on the Canadiens roster. When a team is struggling to clear its own zone, and its best defensive tactic is for players to throw themselves in front of shots; when a typical breakout pass looks more like a Hail Mary and slow defencemen are knocked off the puck because they can't move fast enough to move it, you'd think a fast, skilled, slick-skating defenceman would be on the ice as much as possible.
"Coaching is about drawing the
maximum out of players, and it’s all part of that. I’m quite aware of his
talent, I know exactly how far he can go. We’re going to do what it takes to get
there, that’s where he wants to go too," Therrien says.
How he can call benching his best defenceman on the penalty kill and when the game is on the line "drawing the maximum" out of him is a mystery. One could compare Subban's performance on the PK under Therrien versus Martin and say the latter got more out of Subban than the current coach. His responsibilities were greater and so were the team's results.
A fair comparison for Subban might be the Senators' Erik Karlsson. He's also a very young Norris winner better known for his offensive prowess than his defence. Yet, while we've all seen Karlsson pinch at the wrong time or get deked out of his shorts on occasion, his coach (the same guy who arguably outcoached Therrien last playoffs) has him playing 27+ minutes a night. It's true Karlsson doesn't spend a lot of time on the PK either. He averages just over a minute shorthanded. He does, however see about four minutes a night on the PP and sees his ice time increase as the game progresses and Ottawa is either defending a lead or needing a goal. While it's certainly wise to play to the awesome offensive strengths of both players, and understanding nobody can play half the game every night, it seems Karlsson has more of his coach's confidence than Subban does. You can bet there are no rumours of Karlsson being passed over by Team Sweden for the Olympics.
Watching the Habs struggle at .500 while their best defenceman could do more, it's difficult to find much sympathy for the coach. Therrien's got leeway to "teach" Subban when the team is doing well. When it's struggling, it's time to put your best guys on the ice and let them do what they do best. This is doubly true when the defence is still missing tough Alexei Emelin, and the other guys are getting manhandled. Therrien's willing to shake up the forward lines to turn things around, but his stubborn refusal to better use Subban's skills is hurting the team.
Perhaps Subban is nursing some injury, or Therrien fears he'll get hurt blocking shots on the PK. Maybe he just doesn't like the guy and feels he needs to learn a lesson. The coach hasn't revealed the thinking behind keeping Subban on the bench in important defensive situations. If it comes down to numbers, though, perhaps Therrien should ask himself why Subban was successful in those situations under other coaches and think about whether some of the blame for any perceived defensive weakness should rest with the coaching staff and how they use him.