Devils, P.K. Subban must find a better way forward together

New Jersey Devils defenceman P.K. Subban celebrates with teammates. (Adam Hunger/AP)

NEWARK, N.J. — P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devil. It didn’t sound right from the start, and it hasn’t looked right since the former Norris Trophy winner touched down in the Garden State this summer after the Nashville Predators traded him for Steven Santini, Jeremy Davies and a pair of second-round picks.

Everything that’s happened since—Subban’s average ice-time per game being cut down by just under two minutes from what it was with the Predators, his performance seemingly falling off a cliff less than two years after he was named a Norris Trophy finalist, and the Devils having a catastrophic season that’s led to a major overhaul on their bench and in their front office — has been utterly perplexing.

On Monday, after New Jersey worked through an hour-long practice at Prudential Center, Subban spent some time trying to put the whole situation into perspective.

“When you have the youngest team in the league, and in your first year or second year you’re seeing the coach (John Hynes) and GM (Ray Shero) get relieved of their duties, it can be a lot,” the 30-year-old said.

“And with our team, we’re still learning on how to win games and how to win consistently.”

Even with those factors being undeniable — the Devils being a mostly young and inexperienced group that’s dealt with more turmoil than expected — Subban didn’t shy away from the fact that he hasn’t come close to playing to the standard expected of him.

He’s fallen well short of his own expectations, too.

“For me, there’s still another level or two to my game that I haven’t really touched this year,” Subban said.

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He told Sportsnet that he came to Devils training camp and posted top-tier results in all of the physical testing and that the back issues that plagued him at times in Nashville are behind him.

“I feel great,” he said.

But it’s been fairly obvious that Subban hasn’t felt entirely comfortable.

“It’s always different when you go to a new team,” he said. “Just finding my role on this team… I think that when I came here, the first couple of games it was a little more clear. And then obviously when changes happen, your role changes or things are different.”

About that: Subban is on pace to play less on the power play than he has in any of his other nine NHL seasons, the last time he was used as infrequently on the penalty kill was when he was with the Montreal Canadiens during the 2013-14 season and, with his shift rate considerably diminished, he’s had a difficult time adjusting.

Meanwhile, it has to be considered that he played big minutes — surrounded by elite blue liners and big-name talent up front — on a hyper-aggressive Nashville team that owned the puck for the majority of their games, that he played on a Canadiens team that was strong enough to make the playoffs in five of his seven years in Montreal before that, and that this Devils side bears no resemblance to either of them.

New Jersey ranks 28th out of 31 teams in shot attempts, 24th in unblocked attempts and 25th in high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. The team spends most games chasing the puck, its defence corps is barren of a complementary player for Subban’s skillset, and its forward group, which was already thin on veteran talent, lost top scorer and former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall via a trade to Arizona in December.

Under the circumstances, Subban says he’s bought in to the conservative style the team has had to adopt in order to survive games against more experienced teams.

But we know that runs counter to the player he’s always been, the player he needs to be in order to be at his most effective.

Subban knows it, too, and he’s struggled to find balance in that conflict.

“Sometimes you find yourself trying to do too much and trying to overcompensate instead of just focusing on your job,” he said. “That’s always been who I am — trying to do as much as I can to try to help the team win.”

It hasn’t worked nearly as much as Subban or the Devils hoped it would.

So, the most pertinent question to ask is: Where do they go from here?

Subban says he’s committed to the Devils and that he loves his teammates and the organization, but it’s clear things can’t continue this way. With two more seasons remaining on a contract that comes with an annual cap hit of $9 million, with Subban on pace for just 17 points (or less than half of what he’s recorded in any other full season he’s played) something’s got to give.

Trading him would likely require the Devils retaining a large percentage of his cap hit and taking a considerable loss on the return, and that can’t be a desirable outcome for them.

If they’re going to avoid it, they’re going to have to find a way to get something better out of the Toronto native, whether it’s by depending on him more or surrounding him with more talent.

Doing a combination of both would probably help.

And on Subban’s end, he’s going to have to find a way to focus on his own game and raise his level, which is something he says he’s intent on doing from here to the end of the season.

“I haven’t had too many seasons where people have had to raise an eyebrow, but this season’s been tough,” Subban said. “It’s also bounces, too. You need to get some bounces and some luck and I think in some situations I haven’t gotten those things.

“But also, I have to take responsibility on it too. I do have that standard of expectation to be a top defenceman in the league every year and to be a guy that’s considered in those Norris Trophy conversations. It’s just a personal thing.

“It doesn’t mean you have to win the Norris every year, but you have to be in those conversations and be amongst those players. I know that I’m still that player.

“I just think that it’s sometimes you have to buy into the situation that you’re in and make the best of what you have and where you’re at. And I think that with me right now, I have to continue to improve my game and get better, but also make players around me better as well.

“And that’s always been one of my biggest assets as a player is making players around me better, and I don’t think I’ve done that as consistently this season. I can do a better job of that.”

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