Feature photo credit to Lisa Gansky
Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban has all the skills an NHL player could ask for. His slapshot is the stuff of every goalie’s nightmares, provided they see it long enough to remember what it looked like; to stand in front to block it is a death wish. He skates with the grace of a finesse-minded forward, twirling his way past defenders while dangling the puck just beyond their reach, almost taunting them. He’s a smaller defender but can level anyone who stands in his way. The balance he has struck in offensive and defensive prowess makes him an elite talent.
Days away from his 26th birthday, he’s developed as a player far beyond his years, already with one Norris Trophy to his credit and another nomination this year. He plays in the center of the hockey universe for the team he grew up rooting for, and his joy for the game is frequently broadcast through his infectious smile. Off the ice, he is heavily involved with charity work and eager to get involved with fans, like when he disguised himself to surprise local kids with an impromptu hockey game with their hero. There are a million reasons he should be as marketable as the true household names of the NHL: the Patrick Kanes, the Alex Ovechkins and the Henrik Lundqvists. But in the eyes of many fans, Subban has blacklisted himself with his on-ice antics, making him among the most polarizing players in the league, and the league’s most disliked defenseman since Chris Pronger.
Subban has developed a nasty reputation by diving and committing dirty plays, sprinkling in some complaining to referees in between. Even in his finest season thus far statistically, Subban has once again overshadowed his talent by making boneheaded, unnecessary decisions. He has become the posterboy for the league’s new embellishment rules by being the first player fined twice for diving, meaning he had three egregious violations. Those dives were in the regular season and some people could have missed them, but the way Subban kicked off the postseason by giving Ottawa Senators rookie Mark Stone a bone-breaking, two-handed slash to the wrist–with all of North America watching–was unavoidable, and inexcusable.
Subban took a five minute major for the slash and a game misconduct, booted from the first game of the playoffs. The play supported the viewpoint of Subban’s detractors: that he too often plays without thinking and succumbs to bouts of goon-like aggression. The slash on Stone was another clip for an already lengthy reel of Subban’s lowest moments in decision making:
Subban’s frame is small for a defenseman, but he’s more than strong enough to win battles along the boards, especially with forwards. Slew-footing, aside from being dirty, is plain lazy, and Subban’s doing himself and his team a disservice by attracting negative attention and racking up penalties (when the slew-foot is caught, that is).
Both videos also coincidentally display another of Subban’s unsavory qualities: his tendency to throw his arms up and complain to referees looking for a call. Subban throws a legitimate temper tantrum near 1:10 of the Stone slash video, jumping up and down complaining to the linesman, and after slew-footing then-Pittsburgh Penguin James Neal at around 1:28 in the other video, Subban stares down the officials after Neal’s stick accidentally struck him as Neal fell. Subban is responsible for dirty plays in those videos; his inability to understand that and beg for calls anyway rubs fans the wrong way.
Subban is hockey’s answer to LeBron James, but without the once-in-a-generation talent and accolades to make his flopping and complaining tolerable. Fans don’t like whining: it’s why Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby is so detested, despite being the most talented hockey player in the world. Subban is elite, but not the way Crosby or James are. Ask a casual fan who the best player in the NBA and NHL is, 90 percent of the time you’ll get them to say James and Crosby. Ask hockey fans who the best defenseman in the league is and you’ll listen to discussions about Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Suter, Subban and a whole host of other players. You can argue for Subban, but many will disagree, and whining only adds incentive for fans to make the case against him.
Subban likely won’t change his tendencies anytime soon, because if there’s anything he’s proven during his time in the league, it’s that he’s unapologetically himself. In the American sports landscape, where humility is often one of the unwritten and expected codes of behavior, confidence has recently been misconstrued as an attack on the integrity of the game and a disrespect to opponents. In Major League Baseball, Yasiel Puig is having fun flipping his bat to celebrate home runs as he has always done, to the disdain of many opponents when he first came up. Normally reserved Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez was enthusiastic about hitting his first home run in the last start of his rookie year, and the Braves confronted him to tone it down as he rounded the bases. Even in the NFL, where egos have long run wild with players like Deion Sanders and Terrell Owens, Richard Sherman and Colin Kaepernick are two of the league’s most hated players because of the way they view themselves. Subban isn’t arrogant like Sherman, he’s just confident in who he is and in his abilities, and for some reason that offends people. Not that Subban cares, or that he should.
Subban doesn’t need to worry about appeasing every fan, it’s an impossible task. He should be concerned about cleaning up the dirty parts of his game, though. Subban is too important to the Canadiens and their Stanley Cup aspirations to get himself needlessly kicked out of games or suspended. He’s a team leader and needs to stop resorting to the same tactics a fourth-line goon might use. As with any player who puts on a Canadiens sweater, Subban is representing much more than just himself, and the negativity he generates with his antics in some way hurts the team. For every playoff round Montreal fails to advance to because Subban was in the box too often, or for every fan who decides they don’t want to buy a Subban jersey, that’s revenue Montreal loses out on and money that could be used to pay off Subban’s enormous 8-year, $72 million contract.
P.K. Subban has blossomed very quickly into a tremendous player. The only big step remaining in his development is playing smarter. Subban will always be himself, and despite what some of his penalties might indicate, he is intelligent. He just needs to stop letting himself convince you otherwise.