As goalie Carey Price plays out a critical part in Canadian hockey history on the international stage at the Winter Olympics, Montreal Canadiens teammate P.K. Subban can literally only watch, relegated not even to a permanent seat on the bench but one in the audience. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this.
Looking back, there was always somewhat of a question as to whether or not Price would end up the starter or even make Canada’s Olympic team in the first place. That wasn’t so much the case with Subban, the reigning Norris Memorial Trophy winner as last season’s best defenseman in the NHL. Prior to the start of the season, it was almost assumed Canada would take him. How could it not?
Ultimately, one has to believe that was the only reasoning behind his selection, the lack of a decent answer to that question. It's almost as if general manager Steve Yzerman had to name him to the team out of fear of the resulting public backlash—and public rioting in Montreal if history is any indication. I mean, it’s become abundantly clear that head coach Mike Babcock doesn't want him in his top-six.
Limited to just 11:41 in the tournament, Subban has seen the ice less in five games (a healthy scratch in four) than he sometimes would in a single period playing for the Habs.
There is little denying Canada’s depth at defense. However, Subban finding himself below players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jay Bouwmeester on the team’s depth chart—all due respect to both Olympians—speaks to an all-too-common misconception that Subban plays too risky of a game to justify putting him in.
Subban has played a total of 1,475:18 this season, an average of exactly 25 minutes per game. He has given up the puck 65 times over that span, which comes out to 2.64 giveaways per 60-minute interval.
Sweden’s Erik Karlsson, whom Canada will be facing on Sunday in the gold-medal game, has conversely played a total of 1,610:32. He has given up the puck 81 times to lead the NHL, translating into 3.01 turnovers per 60-minute interval. And yet Karlsson, who plays a similar style to Subban’s, has been good enough to regularly get into Sweden’s lineup during this tournament (and co-lead it in scoring with eight points).
Where’s the justice?
If you were to argue that’s not a fair comparison since Canada is the deeper team (in spite of the fact that both teams will be playing for gold and Sweden is the higher seed), please take Drew Doughty, Babcock’s current golden boy (forgive the potential jinx) as an example instead.
Doughty, who leads Canada with six points, has played a total of 1,533:13 this season for the Los Angeles Kings and given up the puck 63 times, just two fewer times than Subban. That works out to 2.47 giveaways per 60-minute interval, a negligible .17 point difference. Meanwhile, Subban has 39 points, including eight goals, in 59 games. Doughty? The same amount of games played and goals but just 30 points.
It’s almost as if the risk-reward element to Subban’s game pays off to a greater extent than Doughty’s. And, for the record, it’s not like Subban can give the puck away .17 times more than Doughty over the course of a single game (or half that, if we’re assuming they’re playing a more realistic 20-30 minutes).
This isn’t to suggest Babcock should play Subban over Doughty; it's just that, while the consensus is the latter is that much more defensively responsible, the gap isn’t as wide as some people (i.e., Babcock), would like to think. It all begs the question: Why can’t he play both?
While Subban didn’t get on the board against Austria, his only game of the tournament, that 6-0 victory marked the only time Canada has scored more than three goals in the tournament. And the only time the Canadians scored that many was against the defensive powerhouse that is Norway.
The bottom line is, for a team desperate for offense, it’s almost nonsensical to keep scratching Subban, a player who oozes it. One need only look to Subban’s play against Austria for proof that he is capable of playing within a system and excelling all the while. In spite of his reputation, he doesn’t have to be the center of attention all the time, but he can step up and be if the situation calls for it, as it often does in Montreal.
In any case, the point is almost moot, because whatever Babcock is doing is certainly working, and it would be foolish to change his lineup now. It’s difficult to argue the team needs more offense when Canada has been getting results playing great defensively without him.
No one can take away from Subban the fact that he did get named to Team Canada and is at least on paper seen as one of the country’s eight-best defenseman. Nor can anyone take away the medal he stands to win. Big picture, though? Subban stands to lose big.
All the positives haven’t helped with the perception that he’s a defensive liability, nor have they done him any favors with Habs GM Marc Bergevin in regard to his upcoming status as a restricted free agent.
With possible exception to Price, who has stood on his head for large portions of the season to keep the Habs afloat, Subban is Montreal’s most valuable player. While Price is certainly the reason Montreal has been able to conserve victories, Subban has largely been responsible for putting up the points so that there are victories to conserve.
All this taken into consideration, one has to believe that Subban is at least in line for a raise similar to the one Karlsson received from the Ottawa Senators after he won the Norris in 2011-12. And if Subban did receive similar money to him and, coincidentally, Doughty, would that be so bad?
The only answer that is clear is that $8-9 million figure TSN’s Bob McKenzie has reported Subban is seeking? That’s not all that realistic at this point.
Subban’s reputation is far from irreparably tarnished from his Olympic experience. However, he’ll have to temper his contract expectations accordingly come June and July or risk his second lengthy contract dispute in as many years. No one wins in that scenario, and that reputation of his likely won’t be able to recover from such a hit, especially with all logic firmly in Bergevin’s corner.
A spectacular Olympics could have served as Subban’s proving ground and secured his spot as one the world’s best defensemen, enabling him to command whatever salary he deemed appropriate. However, as the tournament’s all but come and gone without him even being considered one of the six best on his team, that’s not even a pipe dream at this point, unless we’re talking about a different kind of pipe.
Really, one has to wonder if Subban would have been better off being snubbed altogether and left off Team Canada, at least in regard to his contract negotiations. That isn’t to say that’s something he would have seriously considered, as this could very well end up being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
No one can say for sure what’s going on in Subban’s head at the moment, but he’s likely enjoying himself. I think that’s relatively fair to assume considering his flamboyant, seize-the-day personality.
Sure, he may not be playing as big a part as Price, but his supporting role is nothing to scoff at. And, sure, he may end up leaving money on the table come the end of the year, but the medal he’ll end up winning, whether it’s gold or silver, will be invaluable.
As such, regardless of how badly the Olympics will end up hurting his upcoming contract negotiations—justifiably or not—they’ll have positively impacted his career as a whole. That’s the bigger picture.