Johnston: Subban burning to prove ’em wrong

Don't try P.K.'s workout at home. The Montreal Canadiens defenceman pumps up the jam and adds weight and drama to the simple chin-up.

It is tempting to look at a season where P.K. Subban has unexpectedly played his way into the Norris Trophy conversation and simply chalk it up to maturity.

But this, it seems, is about more than that.

A fire is quietly burning below the surface for the Montreal Canadiens defenceman, and it is being fuelled by a desire to answer his critics. Not only is Subban out to prove that he’s an elite player, he’s also eager to show he can be a leader and an exemplary teammate.

You see, while some in the hockey world were taking shots at Subban during a tough round of contract negotiations that included a brief holdout earlier this year, the 23-year-old was busy keeping tabs on what was being said.

And those words have stuck with him throughout his best campaign yet in the NHL.

“It’s very easy now for people to speak positively about our team and about my situation because of the way we’ve played this season,” Subban told during a candid one-on-one conversation Thursday. “But I don’t forget the people that said that I’ll never play in a Habs jersey again or that I’m selfish or that I’m greedy or that I’m confused. I’m thinking I’m a lot better than what I actually am.

“I don’t forget those things, and maybe those comments and those people are the reason why we’re having such a great season this year.”

It was a rare moment of introspection from a player that has generally shied away from sharing his personal feelings with reporters since signing a $5.75-million, two-year extension with the Habs on Jan. 28.

While Subban remains an outgoing and eminently likeable young man, he has made a point of discussing this season only in terms of team goals and accomplishments. The message has been consistent and clear: Beyond the success of the bleu, blanc et rouge, everything is secondary.

“I’m trying to be a leader for my team,” Subban explained. “I’m not trying to just be a good player, I’m trying to be a player that guys can rely on every night to step up and do the job and that guys know is going to be a professional and think about this team first.

“I’ve tried to do that this season, and I’d like to think I’m doing a pretty good job, but I have to continue to do that.”

There might be no better way to sum up Subban’s shift in approach than with a motto evoked by Habs general manager Marc Bergevin – “sometimes less is more” – for that has been a key to both his play on the ice and his attitude away from it.

You can’t argue with the results.

With Subban logging major minutes, the Canadiens are off to their best start through 40 games of a season since 1978-79 and clinched a playoff spot with Thursday’s 5-1 victory in Buffalo. They look nothing like the team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference a year ago.

Thursday’s game also included a goal and assist for Subban, pushing his NHL-best points total among defencemen to 34 (in 34 games).

As always, stats only tell part of the story.

Some of Subban’s biggest gains seem to be within the confines of the Habs dressing room, where teammates report seeing a different side of the fourth-year pro. Gone is the happy-go-lucky, laugh-a-minute player of years past.

“First and foremost, I see maturity,” said defence partner Josh Gorges. “That goes with everything. When you talk maturity, I mean his preparation, his work ethic and knowing that he doesn’t always have to be flashy to get the job done.”

For a player with Subban’s immense talent, flash comes so naturally that it has to be harnessed and controlled.

It wasn’t all that long ago that former coach Randy Cunneyworth slyly noted that it wasn’t enough for Subban to deke his way around an opponent once, so he often tried to do it twice.

That aspect of his game has slowly been whittled away, although Bergevin noted that there is still some room for improvement. However, Subban now seems just as content making a safe 10-foot pass as he does an end-to-end rush, depending on what the situation calls for.

“There’s been a lot of talks with him in the past and in the media, and he’s drawn a lot of attention – and rightfully so, he’s a pretty dynamic player,” said Gorges. “But my personal opinion about why he’s having success, why he’s putting up the points that he’s putting up, it’s because he’s not trying to do things to get points.

“He’s not trying to be the flashy superstar; he’s trying to be a great defenceman.”

Clearly, Subban has been playing with a chip on his shoulder as well.

He became a lightning rod for criticism back in January when the lockout ended, and he didn’t immediately come to terms on a new contract. Seeking a long-term deal – the kind many of his peers had already received – Subban stuck to his guns until it became clear that the Habs wouldn’t relent.

The sides settled on a two-year bridge contract that will allow them to reopen discussions on a longer extension this summer.

“I knew that after the negotiation was over I’d be back in Montreal, and I knew that it was only the beginning of my career and not the ending,” said Subban. “I was very sharp in terms of listening to what certain people had to say in the media about the organization, about Marc Bergervin, about myself, about my agent, and I documented all those things.

“And I don’t forget things.”

A lot of water has travelled under the bridge between him and the Habs organization.

With Bergevin and new coach Michel Therrien running the show, the slate has been wiped clean for everyone. Therrien didn’t know Subban personally before getting the chance to work with him this season, and he has come away impressed.

“I didn’t want to pay too much to what I heard in the past,” said Therrien. “One thing I know is that he’s a young man that has a lot of passion for the game, and it’s great. He likes to come to the rink. He likes to practice, he likes to work out, games get him excited.”

True, but it no longer seems to be an unbridled enthusiasm.

A little older and more experienced, Subban has started channeling his energy in a different way. It’s clear that his recent brush with the business side of the sport has left an indelible mark, more because of how it was perceived from the outside than anything that happened in the negotiations themselves.

“I’m not saying that I hold grudges or anything; I just believe that it’s very easy to take a shot at somebody when they’re down and out,” said Subban. “It’s very easy to do that when they’re in a difficult situation. I’d rather put it this way: I discovered a lot of people’s true colours when I wasn’t playing.

“Everybody is singing the same tune right now, but I know what tune they’ll be singing if I’m not in the best position of if I’m not playing well or if I’m not in the lineup.”

Say what you want about Subban – he’s having a heck of a season, and he looks like he’s worth every penny he’s making and then some.

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