TORONTO – Maria Subban was the second happiest person in the room when the youngest of her three NHL draftees signed with the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs on Canada Day.
“She was probably the most excited — other than me,” the Toronto-born Jordan Subban says. “My mom was a huge Leafs fan growing up. My dad was a Habs fan.”
Even with Norris-winning P.K. capturing hearts in Montreal and reaching a Stanley Cup final in Nashville, even with next-up Malcolm getting drafted by Boston and playing some stellar goal last season for the expansion wonder Golden Knights, Maria has always been a Leafs fan at heart.
Ditto, Jordan. And his big brothers knew it.
“I don’t want to say jealousy, but they were excited for me to have the opportunity to play here,” says Jordan, punctuating every interview response with a wide grin.
“I always loved the Leafs. I think if you ask any guy who I played with in the past or in the American League, ‘What do you think of Jordan signing with Toronto?’ they’d say, ‘Ah! He’s always wanted to play there anyway.’ I love the Leafs. I love being able to play at home.”
I only love my bed and my momma, I’m sorry…
Like Drake, Jordan’s favourite recording artist, the 23-year-old defence prospect could be categorized both as a bit of a momma’s boy and a T.O. flag-waver.
So when new Leafs GM Kyle Dubas contacted him shortly after the AHL Marlies Calder Cup championship and right as NHL free agency opened, Subban’s one-year, two-way, $650,000 deal was finalized in rapid fashion.
“I wanted to take advantage of it,” Subban explains. “It’s one of the best if not the best organization.
“You expect to win. Marlies have a track record of it, and obviously the Leafs are on the up-rise. They’re both good teams. Having the opportunity to play at home and win is huge.”
The hard truth is, a big-league opportunity of any kind is critical at this stage in Subban’s development. In 52 AHL contests in 2017-18, his penalty minutes shot up (to a career-worst 66) and his production dipped (to a career-worst 13 points).
Toronto represents Subban’s third shot. Better be the charm.
How many prospects get a legit shot to break into the bigs with a fourth franchise?
The fourth-rounder was drafted back in 2013 by the Vancouver Canucks. Despite consecutive 36-point campaigns for AHL Utica and being named the farm system’s all-star in 2017, however, he never could crack an NHL lineup we’d be hard-pressed to describe as crammed with speedy, skilled, playmaking D-men.
Vancouver flipped Subban (for centre Nic Dowd) to Los Angeles last season, but after posting a combined minus-29 rating over his first three pro seasons, the restricted free agent was left unqualified, thrusting him onto the open market without a single NHL appearance to his name.
You won’t catch Jordan, ever the optimist, uttering a bad word about his time in the Canucks organization. “Vancouver, it was great when I was there,” he insists.
But no doubt, Jordan says, he wants a night like the one P.K. and Malcolm shared with father Karl in Vegas last winter. He’s played against Malcolm in the A — “That was awesome!” — and regularly shoots on his goaltending brother during summer training sessions under BioSteel’s Matt Nichol, but still dreams of elevating his sibling rivalries to the highest level, Maria likely decked out in blue and white.
“Watching that game, seeing them have that moment with my dad was pretty special. It was cool. I just wish P.K. got to shoot in the shootout. That woulda been fun,” Jordan says.
A cool family moment:
P.K. & Malcolm Subban meet up with their father ahead of their first game against each other.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 9, 2017
Instead of flying to the desert in June with the rest of the Subban crew to root on Malcolm’s Knights in the Cup final, Jordan set right back to work.
Jordan has devoted his summer to sharpening his defensive work against established NHLers such as Tyler Seguin, Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly. He’s been picking Darnell Nurse’s brain about tactics and positioning. He’s been regularly asking San Jose Sharks assistant coach (and former Marlies bench boss) Steve Spott for pointers.
Once a week, he meets up with Leafs skating guru Barb Underhill for 45 minutes to work on his stride.
“I love working with her,” Jordan says. “I try to take advantage of the time I have with her because she’s so good at what she does.”
And last week at Toronto’s MasterCard Centre, Jordan had a positive first quick meeting with Mike Babcock, the man who will decide if and when he’s ready.
But, really, the onus is on Subban, an undersized right-hand shot with wheels.
It’s no secret the Leafs are thin on right D, and with Roman Polak moving on to Dallas this summer, the Leafs need young righties to step up. Nikita Zaitsev, 26, must start justifying his $31.5-million contract. Connor Carrick, 24, was re-signed. Justin Holl, 26, appears primed to make a roster push. Timothy Liljegren, 19, has been tabbed as the next golden boy, but he’s likely another year away.
Subban won’t allow himself to believe his handedness gives him any help in climbing the depth chart.
“My goal is to go in and play well and don’t think about any of that and give myself the best opportunity to make the team,” he says.
Watching him scrimmage this week alongside Nurse, Connor McDavid, and Max Domi, Subban can hang with their pace. A few dangles and scoring-chance setups catch your eye. He’s comfortable with the puck on his tape.
But the NHL is an altogether angrier animal. Not all 5-foot-9 fourth-rounders get four chances, regardless of the name on their back.
“I feel ready to go into camp in a couple weeks here,” says Subban, flashing another smile.
“I can’t wait to show what I can do.”