THE CANADIAN PRESS
BROSSARD, Que. — There has been no shouting or moaning from rookie P.K. Subban about his temporary banishment from the Montreal Canadiens lineup.
And the 21-year-old defenceman swears he doesn’t need a bodyguard in the Bell Centre pressbox when he watches his teammates play.
But the talented and effervescent rookie who became an instant fan favourite during the club’s playoff run last spring has been as much a topic of debate for not playing as he was before coach Jacques Martin decided to drop him from the lineup.
Since committing two costly errors in a 4-3 loss to Edmonton last week, Subban has sat out two games and the indication from Monday’s practice, where his defence partner was unused forward Dustin Boyd, was that he will be a healthy scratch again when the Canadiens play host to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
"The focus is not on me," Subban insisted to a crowd of media Monday after practice. "The team’s winning now and that’s all that matters.
"I’m not going to dissect it. If (Martin) wants me to watch from the pressbox, that’s what I’ll do. He’s been around a long time and he’s been successful in the NHL and he’s well-respected. So I’m not going to analyze what he says, I’m just going to do what he tells me to do."
Subban had a goal and eight assists and was plus-5 in the Canadiens first 25 games this season and looked to have become a fixture on the defence. The benching was a reminder that rookie mistakes are only tolerated to a point.
He probably would only have sat out one game, but Martin rarely makes changes after a win and the Canadiens posted victories of 5-1 in New Jersey and 3-1 over San Jose.
Yannick Weber, a 22-year-old called up Nov. 20 from AHL Hamilton, filled in for Subban on the third defence pair with Alexandre Picard and had two assists and was plus-3 in the two games.
Some have wondered how Subban would react, and there were reports that during the win over the Sharks on Saturday afternoon that he was accompanied by a security guard in the pressbox. That drew a laugh from the six-foot, 212-pound Toronto native.
"I think I’m one of the last guys that needs someone to protect me," he said.
Martin sees it as another step in the maturation process that nearly all rookies go through and compared it to his goaltending situation last season, when gifted youngster Carey Price was struggling and watched from the bench as Jaroslav Halak took the starting job. This season, a more focused Price has been one of the NHL’s top goalies.
"Last year with Price and Halak, there was a lot of maturing and growing and understanding," said Martin. "I think it’s a healthy situation. Players have to earn their ice time."
It was not the first time Subban’s maturity was called into question. Early in the season, he was blasted by Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry for not showing respect after an on-ice jawing match with Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby.
And last month, Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards called out Subban for on-ice yapping and showboating and suggested that Montreal’s veteran players take him aside for a chat about respect.
Martin made no move until Subban’s ill-advised attempt to keep a puck in the Oilers zone that resulted in Sam Gagner’s game-tying goal on an odd-man rush, and his failure to stay in his position as Dustin Penner gave Edmonton the overtime win.
If there is a fault with Subban, it seems it is that he sometimes tries to make spectacular individual plays while the team has built its 17-8-2 record largely on strong team play and goaltending. The challenge may be to balance the dynamic skater’s urge to go on attack with better decision making on the defensive side.
Canadiens rearguard Josh Gorges said he advised Subban to keep skating hard and work his way back into the lineup.
"I don’t know if he has to be more of a team player because he’s out there trying to help us as much as anyone else," said Gorges. "Every young player goes through it.
"It’s not easy or fun, but it will make him a better and stronger player in the future — learning how to deal with adversity when things don’t go his way, having to bounce back, having to deal with the downs. That’s part of life and part of hockey. He’s a strong, character guy and I think that when he gets back in the lineup he’ll be that much stronger for it."
The Canadiens defence has been surprisingly solid this season considering that Andrei Markov, their top blue-liner and arguably best overall player, skated in only seven games before being scheduled for reconstructive knee surgery that will end his season.
In the last five seasons, Montreal was 19-36-6 when Markov was not in the lineup. This season, they are 13-5-2 without their defence ace.
Markov missed 37 games last season and was hurt again in the first round of playoffs. It appears the team is learning to live without him.
"We haven’t had much choice but to try to adapt," said Gorges. "It hasn’t been easy, but other guys have really stepped up their game.
"And when our forwards are coming back, it forces (opponents) into us and it makes our job so much easier. We’ve had to play with that team-first mentality — the five guys together. Guys aren’t doing too much on their own and, when we play like that, we’re tough to play against."
Note: The Canadiens power play was at or near last place during the first month of the NHL season with only three goals in 14 games, but it has risen to 12th with a 17.9 per cent success rate after going 12-for-48 since Nov. 9. Their penalty killing leads the NHL with a 90.1 per cent kill rate (11 goals in 111 chances).