With PK Subban on the bench late in close games and on the penalty kill, rumors have spread that the Montreal Canadiens might be trying to gain leverage in what will be a costly contract negotiation, or that head coach Michel Therrien simply does not trust Subban.
Averaging just under 25 minutes a game, the defending Norris Trophy winner is ranked 18th in time on ice per game among defensemen. Strangely, many pundits have avoided answering the most pertinent question: Is there a hockey reason for Subban to sit in defensive situations?
Beyond his obvious skill and consistent statistical results, we will see below just how and why PK Subban is an effective and underrated defender, as well as the likely reason Therrien is keeping him stapled to the bench in defensive situations. Like most young defensemen, Subban makes mistakes. Still, his typically cerebral defensive work outweighs his occasionally risky behavior, and Therrien would do well to play him in every situation.
What Subban Does Well
While he leads Montreal defenders in powerplay minutes, Subban is last among regular defensemen in shorthanded time. When losing a close game, Subban averages 2:54 in the last five minutes. When winning or tied late in a close game, however, Subban averages just 1:32 in the final five minutes.
It's a confusing pattern by the coach considering Subban is a deserving Norris winner. In general, he’s reined in his early-career enthusiasm and plays much more within himself, making fewer high-risk plays and playing with more patience. His talent is still on display almost every shift, with crisp outlet passes, exceptional vertical speed and a handful of dangerous shots that he’s comfortable taking from almost anywhere in the offensive zone.
Perhaps something still underappreciated about PK is his tracking of opposing forward movements. He maintains control of passing lanes, tracks his man to and away from the net and generally uses extremely effective approach angles in the defensive end.
Tacking a single shift as an example, we can see Subban’s defensive awareness.
In the first image, we see Subban tracking to the puck in the neutral zone, closing his gap on the Minnesota side of center to prevent his man (No. 24, Matt Cooke) from making a clean play. He knows he has support from Lars Eller (No. 81) and makes the aggressive, higher-reward play with minimal risk.
(Apologies for a poor image. The puck sails through, and the camera man does, too. Nothing is in focus during this camera pan.)
Once in the zone, the Wild generate a chance on net with Subban trailing the play. Some viewers might call for Subban to rush in to help, but look at his very careful positioning. Not only is he tracking his man into the zone and all the way to the net, he’s maintaining inside positioning (between his man and the net) so that he would be the first to get a rebound or loose puck. He’s trusting his teammates, who outnumber the Wild attackers, and doing his job to perfection.
After this shot, a lot happens. Subban completes tracking Cooke to the net when the puck goes into his corner. He collects and makes a play up the boards, but the winger is checked. Subban returns to the net to pick up his check (still Matt Cooke), blocks a shot and then tracks Cooke out (away from the net) just as he had followed him into the zone (toward the net).
Of note is not just his strong man coverage but the angle of his approach. Above we can see Subban pressuring Cooke up the boards and toward other Montreal defenders. Cooke pushes the puck into the corner, but Subban closes and Cookie finds himself going the wrong way to go after it. Subban has trapped him away from the play and Montreal gains possession.
It is not Subban’s man coverage and angling alone that make him a good defender. We might look back at how he played a two-on-one against Tampa Bay November 12 for another example—a game in which Therrien played Subban for 22 seconds in the final five minutes.
His partner, Andrei Markov, gets caught pinching at the offensive blue line, but Subban has back pressure from Alex Galchenyuk (No. 27) on puck-carrier J.T. Brown (No. 23). We see two excellent plays on this two-on-one.
The first is his communication, pointing to Tampa Bay’s Valteri Filppula (No. 51) to let his teammates and goaltender Carey Price know where his focus is. You can even see Lars Eller taking note of what Subban is indicating.
The second strong play actually involves breaking up the pass. That might seem obvious, but in the image below, we see that Filppula has slowed up to create a low-to-high pass in order to (he hopes) force Subban to back out of the passing lane.
Subban has a tough choice. Brown could cut underneath him and across Price for a very dangerous chance if he stays high with Filppula. Subban reads the two threats very well and sticks with the assignment he has communicated without giving up his middle-lane positioning.
These are just two of any number of very high-level defensive plays that PK Subban makes. He’s an intelligent, thoughtful defender, as well as a "thoroughbred," as Therrien called him.
What Subban Still Struggles with
Subban makes two mistakes repeatedly, which may be why Therrien doesn’t use him in defensive contexts.
The first is that he occasionally switches sides without communicating. We can tell he’s not communicating because his very capable partner in Markov appears confused, lost and unsure. Sometimes Subban goes back, sometimes he doesn’t. Perhaps that’s a bad-habit mistake or a mistaken read. Either way, it’s uncommon already and will probably be resolved over time.
The second mistake comes from his defensive-zone process, and that is somewhat more worrisome. Whether it is a mental lapse, or a way to manage his energy levels, Subban rarely stops in the defensive zone. He prefers to float at low speed and accelerate when he needs to. While the rest of the Canadien defenders have very specific (coached) patterns to their skating, including straight-line stops and starts, Subban stays in motion. This leads to him extending his range unnecessarily and causes confusion for the Canadiens' five-man unit on the ice.
We can see both problems appear in one play in the same game against Minnesota.
Subban goes back to get the puck but could probably leave it for Markov behind the net while setting a subtle pick on the forechecker. That’s not necessarily a mistake, though.
Yet after he’s made the play on the puck up the boards, he should circle back in front and let Markov defend his side of the ice. Instead, he just keeps floating toward the play.
We can see in this still image below the confusion he has caused.
Markov (No. 79) is caught. He knows he has a man in front and a man on the end boards. Brendan Gallagher (No. 11) has come down to cover the man in front, but his assignment is at the blue line if that puck ever gets there. Both Wild defensemen are open out of image, and Subban is in no-man’s land.
Subban has created a mess. He should have just stopped and returned to his assignment; but instead, he floated, switched sides and didn’t communicate.
Sum It Up
These two errors are not constant, but they are consistent. The next question is whether Therrien is trying to coach him to stop floating and make more crisp, patterned movements, or if he’s simply going to help him make better reads so he is less often making a mistake while moving however he wants. We will have the answer to that question by the end of the season.
In general, PK Subban is a cerebral, effective defender who is dynamic offensively and a gifted athlete. He is not perfect and certainly still in need of a coach. But Michel Therrien would be doing himself a favor by playing Subban more often in defensive situations. Subban can clearly play every aspect of defense at an exceptionally high level, and it's time for Therrien to play him like the Norris winner that he is.