BROSSARD, Que. – During a drill at the Montreal Canadiens practice Tuesday, an angry assistant coach Randy Ladouceur shouted at defenceman P.K. Subban “You’ve been out here 40 minutes, wake up.”
It’s been that kind of season for the 22-year old Subban, who has emerged as the struggling Canadiens’ top defenceman even while drawing blasts of ire from coaches, opponents and sometimes teammates for his occasional gaffes and misdemeanours.
It was his second run-in with Ladouceur in less than a week. A television camera captured them arguing on the bench during a 5-4 shootout loss in Pittsburgh on Friday night after a Subban giveaway led to a Penguins goal.
In the same game, Subban slew footed Chris Kunitz, which drew a $2,500 fine from the NHL.
But the boisterous, sophomore defenceman insists he has no problem with Ladouceur, who coaches the team’s defence group.
“I have a great relationship with Randy and I’d hate for you guys (the media) to ruin that,” Subban said. “I’m a young guy and I need to be coached and that’s what he’s doing.
“Let him do his job and I’ll play the game. He’s probably going to tear a strip off me again this year. Maybe a couple of times.”
That seems to be the constitution of P.K. Subban — impressive skating, passing and shooting skills mixed with a large dose of enthusiasm, but also a sneaky side and a tendency to make risky, sometimes disastrous decisions on the ice.
For Subban as well as head coach Randy Cunneyworth, it’s all about the growing pains of a player with the potential to become an elite NHL defenceman.
“I’m young and I’ve made mistakes and I’m going to make more,” said Subban, who fought during practice last month with veteran Tomas Plekanec. “The coaching staff have got their work cut out. But hopefully I’ll do more positive things than negative. As long as I’m willing to learn.”
The Canadiens (18-21-9) are coming off a 3-1 victory in Toronto on Saturday night and face the visiting Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night.
Subban leads the team in ice time per game (23:55). He kills penalties, plays the power play, and with partner Josh Gorges goes up against opponents’ top lines at even strength.
He has also become a fan favourite and perhaps the team’s most popular player along with his pal, goaltender Carey Price, with whom he exchanges spirited hand slaps after victories.
When asked about Subban’s latest incident, Price smiled and said: “Sometimes he deserves it and sometimes he doesn’t. I’d say 99 per cent of the time he deserves it.”
Getting serious, he added that Subban “has a lot of potential, but he has a few things he needs to sort out. He’s got a lot of upside to him, but experience isn’t something that comes quickly.”
It’s a lot of responsibility for a player with 126 games in the NHL, but Subban has been thrust into a heavy workload by the absence of defence anchor Andrei Markov, who has yet to play this season and missed all but seven games last season due to a pair of knee operations.
“Our focus is to be on top of the top players that have to take the lion’s share of the workload, and he’s one of them,” said Cunneyworth. “You push these guys.
“There’s a bit of limelight that he’s always involved with, but there are other guys we’re on top of as well. I think his game has improved immensely from the beginning of the year and we’re just going to stay on him.”
Teammates grin and roll their eyes as packs of media surround Subban’s stall after practices. The Toronto native thrives on attention and is an entertaining speaker.
And after practice, he was back out on the ice to film a Nike ad.
But the team’s woes on the ice that have them out of playoff position and in grave danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 have some pointing fingers at Subban.
His three goals and 16 assists in 47 games make him one of several Canadiens struggling to score, although his plus-minus is an even-0. He also leads the team with 55 penalty minutes, many of them costly minors.
Debate has erupted in the media over whether the club should trade Subban, with some arguing he is a mistake-prone distraction and others insisting he is their best hope for the future.
“Even before I played my first game here there were trade rumours,” said Subban, picked 43rd overall by Montreal in the 2007 draft. “They’re always going to be there whether you’re playing great or bad.”
He did not contest the league’s decision to fine him for his hit on Kunitz.
“If someone did that to me I’d want to see something done,” he said. “I have to be more careful in the corners, but I also have to keep battling hard.”
Defenceman Tomas Kaberle was back after visiting the White House on Monday with the Boston Bruins, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in June. Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit reminiscent of an old-time gangster, Kaberle was directly behind U.S. President Barack Obama as the president made his speech.
Newcomer Rene Bourque missed practice with a flu but is expected to play. Forwards Petteri Nokelainen and Travis Moen missed with upper body injuries and are doubtful.
Price supported Boston goalie Tim Thomas’ decision to boycott the White House, even if he said he would not have done the same.
”He’s not political. That’s a pretty political move,” said Price. ”It’s bold. Good on him. He’s standing up for what he believes in.”