Monday, 20 May 2013

P.K. Subban's icetime was managed by the Canadiens this season

It's a little surprising, looking at the Montréal Canadiens year-end statistics, that P.K. Subban only had 23:15 minutes Average Time on Ice, less than the 24:18 he amassed in 2011-12, and less than veteran Andrei Markov did this year with 24:08.  P.K. is a strong, dynamic player with excellent conditioning, lots of energy, and is equally adept in the offensive or defensive zone, in virtually all situations.  He seemed like he could easily have taken more of a load, especially at the end of the season when the team was struggling with injuries.

Some commentors on the blogosphere are positing that there may have been a plan/conspiracy by Canadiens management to keep his icetime down to not hand P.K.'s agents too much ammunition before the next contract negotiations.  I disagree with the reasons given for his relatively low icetime, but I do think it was managed, if not restricted to that 'low' number.

When Marc Bergevin was hired by Geoff Molson, he took as Job #1 the task to change the culture of the team.  The first gesture he made in that direction was to remove Scott Gomez from the roster at the first opportunity.  It's obvious that bringing P.K. back in line was another item on the to-do list to achieve that.

It's hard to blame the player or the management team for this, since the circumstances of the previous season kind of set the stage for P.K. to run wild a little bit.  The team had few reliable defencemen, having let Roman Hamrlik walk in free agency in favour of playing more young players.  This was a decision I supported, but compounded with the surprise medical setbacks of Andrei Markov, it left the team bereft of credible blueliners.  Add to that Jacques Martin's reluctance to use rookies, and P.K., as a second-year and talented player, got more than his share of minutes.  Enter lameduck Randy Cunneyworth as Head Coach midway through the season, and you now have to factor in lack of control and leadership.

This led to some static in the dressing room, and some ruffled feathers.  Denis Gauthier of RDS explained that "if there are five team rules, P.K. will break seven."  There was the famous curt response from Andrei Markov when questioned about P.K.  P.K. was viewed as being too big for his britches, maybe loving the limelight a little too much for a young player.  The nail was sticking out and needed to be hammered down.

When Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien discussed P.K., it's clear to me that they agreed on a plan of action to provide him with direction, with leadership, and discipline.  As I've talked about before, discipline doesn't mean punishment, but clear guidelines to adhere to, and consequences when they're not.  They felt that the previous régime had let P.K. run wild, that the Hal Gill 'mother hen' approach could only go so far, and they took a firm grasp of the reins.

Other than the way the contract negotiations went, and the way the team veterans explained that they didn't want to answer questions about P.K. while he was absent, another way this iron hand in a velvet glove manifested itself was in the limited icetime P.K. received, especially at first.  Michel Therrien tried to explain it away at first by the fact that P.K. didn't have a training camp, didn't know the system, and needed to be brought into the fold slowly.  Then, the fact that the team was winning insulated the head coach from any questions in that regard, for why would anyone want to upset the applecart?

To his credit, P.K. reacted like a champion to this new approach, saying all the right things from the get-go, playing hard and keeping his nose clean.  He took to the new system and gave it all he had and thrived.  He never complained, and we didn't see the outbursts that occurred on the bench last season.  He took to his role and kept his nose to the grindstone.  He should be applauded for this.

Now that the season's over, we look back and think that it was unwise to limit P.K. thus, that he's far and away the best defenceman on the team, and that we should have played him more.

This is where the relationship between Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien is crucial, and where Michel Therrien's job security is key.  The head coach, being newly minted, has a couple seasons of leeway before he's under any pressure to produce results.  This season, with this security as his shield, he was immune to any 'win this game at all costs' philosophy, and 'now we have to win the next game at all costs' corollaries.  He could afford to develop his system, create and strengthen his team, groom his future champions.  So he remained impervious to the siren songs, steered clear of the reefs of short-term thinking, and stubbornly protected Alex Galchenyuk, for example, limiting his minutes and exposure, keeping him hungry, ensuring that the kid always felt he could do more and wanted to show it on the ice.

When applied to P.K., this philosophy led to his diminished icetime, and an equitable distribution of this icetime among his blueline partners.  P.K. was not bigger or better than the team.  The 'team concept' was more important, and developing this was more important to the Canadiens' management team than any single victory or loss.  The team would ultimately benefit if P.K. understood this, and so would he.

As the season wore on and P.K. proved himself, and developed into the player that so many thought he would become, we saw the reins relax on him, his ATOI slowly creep up, and his responsibilities increase.  When Alexei Emelin went down to injury, P.K. took a bigger bite, but still within the team concept, he wasn't treated as if he was the only solution to the problem.

While some see this management of P.K. as a great injustice, a slight he'll never forget and guarantee he'll skip town at his earliest possibility, I think the Canadiens provided P.K. with an environment in which he could progress and thrive.  The results speak for themselves.  P.K. amassed a lot of points, created a new and improved image for himself, and now seems to be a lock for inclusion in the Canadian Olympic Team for next February.  He's a finalist for the Norris Trophy.  These are worthy accomplishments for the young man, and bode well for the future.

P.K. will never be the steady-eddie type like Bob Gainey, Trevor Linden or Jonathan Toews, that's not who he is.  He's more of a fiery guy, a bucking bronco, more Guy Lafleur or Chris Chelios, and that's not a bad thing.  We need many types of players on a team.  What he proved this season is that he can, when pointed in the right direction, cut down on the distractions and be an even greater contributor than he was last year.  And we can thank the Canadiens coaching staff and management team for their plan in this regard.

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