HAMILTON, Ont. - Known as an offensive defenceman, Montreal Canadiens prospect P.K. Subban has shown this season he knows what he's doing at both ends of the ice.
Subban, whose Hamilton Bulldogs open their AHL first-round playoff series against visiting Manitoba on Thursday, has matured on and off the ice this season.
The 20-year-old from Toronto continues to rack up points - 18 goals and 35 assists in 77 games - but has also tightened his defensive game. Subban finished tied for the league lead in plus-minus with a staggering plus-46, putting to rest concerns that his offensive successes come at the expense of defensive responsibilities.
Bulldogs coach Guy Boucher says Subban is figuring out when to jump in on the play and when to hold back.
"When he's there, he never gets beat one-on-one, he makes the right plays, he's extremely hard to beat, he's physical and he's in everybody's face," said Boucher. "The problem is when he chooses to attack when it's not time. That's where he used to have problems, but he doesn't really have that anymore. He has really matured in his game."
"The issue with P.K. is how to channel his enthusiasm - he's got tremendous enthusiasm," Boucher added. "But he's got to channel it at the right time, at the right intensity, and for the right reasons."
Subban played both forward and defence throughout minor hockey, which may explain his offensive talents. His favourite player is Bobby Orr, the only defenceman to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer.
"He was the best defenceman to ever play the game," said Subban. "Some people think it's far-fetched to become a player like that, but he strived to be the best and he's someone I try to pattern my game after."
As for his defensive game, Subban believes it has always been sound.
"I don't think I've been bad defensively - I think I've been pretty good actually," Subban said. "The things that I've been doing at the junior level, in minor hockey and at the world juniors, I've just continued to do those things. I'm just playing the game the way I know how."
But Subban recognizes there is always room for improvement.
"Obviously, you always have areas of your game you can continue to work on," he said. "Part of the thing I've developed is having my stick in a good position on the ice when playing defensively. It's helped me."
Subban was drafted 43rd overall by the Canadiens in 2007, and his offensive flair has many fans expecting to see him on Montreal's blue-line in the near future. In his final year of junior last season with the OHL's Belleville Bulls, Subban collected 14 goals, 62 assists and 76 points in 56 games. He also won gold medals with Canada at the 2008 and 2009 world junior championships.
Subban has turned heads in his rookie pro season, finishing third in scoring among both AHL rookies and defencemen in scoring. He was also named to the league's first all-star and all-rookie teams.
Subban has also grown up, acknowledging that an AHL player can't get away with as many late nights as in junior. Subban's development has been helped along by the leadership of Bulldogs captain Alex Henry, who sits next to Subban in the dressing room and has been his defensive partner for most of the season.
"Every day has been a learning experience for me, in terms of maturity on and off the ice," Subban said. "There are guys here that have played pro for 10 years and have families and kids. They teach you things that the leaders on your team in junior can't."
Canadiens fans got a taste of Subban when he was called up in February for back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Flyers. Subban got an assist in each game, and the coaching staff showed confidence in the youngster by giving him 18 minutes of ice time in the first game and 22 minutes in the second.
"It was pretty cool," said Subban, who was a Habs fan growing up.
Boucher says Subban will be back with the big club.
"We always want heroes and we want them fast, and the problem is that we kill them many times," said Boucher. "I don't know when he's going to be ready, but obviously he is one of those guys that has some tools to be looked at."
Subban says he's not concerned about the future. He's focused on the Bulldogs and the playoffs.
"You never know when you'll get an opportunity to win a championship," he said. "It seems like we've got a pretty good opportunity here, and I just want to make the best of it.
"I'm thriving at this opportunity and I want to go as deep as I possibly can."