There’s nothing wrong with Canadiens coach Michel Therrien trying to make P.K. Subban the best defenseman he can be. But there’s also no getting around it: Therrien is still playing with fire.
As I made clear in a recent issue of THN, I’m the last person who thinks Canadiens star defenseman P.K. Subban is the NHL’s best defenseman. His flaws in his own zone are well-established and Montreal coach Michel Therrien is well within his rights to keep Subban off the ice in key defensive situations.
But for however admirable it is for Therrien to assert his privilege to set the Habs lineup as he sees fit, his tactics aren’t being applied in a vacuum. There are potentially serious and lasting consequences to taking a hard line with a cornerstone blueliner.
There’s nothing wrong with Montreal's coach trying to weld a warrior together and shape Subban into the best defenseman he can be, but there’s also no getting around it: Therrien is still playing with fire.
Again, it has to be stressed there’s nothing inherently damaging about a coach making a point to a young player the way Therrien has with the 24-year-old Subban. But the P.K. Subban of 2013-14 isn’t the same fresh-faced, exceedingly enthusiastic NHL rookie who put scouts and opponents on notice in 2010-2011. Even if I don’t believe Subban deserved last season’s Norris Trophy (and I don’t), there’s no question he’s proven something – and not just that he’s due for a significant raise from the $2.875 million he’ll earn this year.
And make no mistake, money is a huge part of the equation with Subban. So when Therrien chooses to send a message to his best young defenseman – as he did when he sat Subban for the final four-plus minutes of regulation time during Montreal’s 3-2 shootout loss to St. Louis on Tuesday – there’s the chance of it having unintended consequences on the salary cap side of the business. That’s because, when Subban’s current two-year bridge contract expires this coming summer, he’ll be a restricted free agent with three choices: (a) signing a long-term extension; (b) going to arbitration seeking a shorter pact that nudges him closer to unrestricted free agency; or (c) signing an offer sheet with another franchise (and perhaps holding out his services if the Habs elect to match and he doesn't want to return to the Habs.
Therrien's job is to win games and not simply make life easier for GM Marc Bergevin, but he can definitely make life harder for his boss if he pushes Subban too far. Subban is fast approaching a point in his career where he isn’t completely beholden to the whims and warnings of management. And if the Canadiens aren’t too careful, they’ll finger-poke him in the chest all the way into a corner, then wonder why he becomes interested in the color of grass on other sides of the fence.
This isn’t to argue the NHL should become any more of a player’s league than it is already. Allowing players to determine their own ice time and call all the shots isn’t something anybody should want, including the players. You need a coach to be the buttress between yourself and your ego and push you to be better. But whether coaches and GMs admit it or not, there are all sorts of outside influences that have to be taken into account.
For instance: Patrick Kaleta was waived and demoted last week by the Buffalo Sabres after years of awful actions he took on the ice. Much of the reason for him being removed from the team was to address the issues Kaleta’s dirty play brought upon the organization – not only on the ice, but in a public relations sense as well. It wasn’t just about hockey.
Subban’s situation isn’t remotely similar in most regards, but it’s just as true that the optics of his relationship with coaches and management do matter in the grand scheme of things. The media, fans and Subban himself know what he means to this team for today and many more todays after this one. If he’s regularly sitting on the bench at the most important times of games, the media, fans and Subban himself aren’t going to be pleased. And cracks in the foundation of the relationship between player and employer could form and grow.
Nobody's asking Canadiens brass to turn the dressing room over to P.K. Subban’s ego and ambition. But you cannot pretend there’s not a price the team could pay if Therrien isn’t careful.