Eye Test: Maverick P.K. Subban vs. The System and The Man
There exists a code word in every sport for that special kind of player who combines the talent and the gusto necessary to take risks that no one else would or could. Football has gunslingers, quarterbacks who try to rifle their passes into the narrowest openings. Basketball has gunners, who shoot the ball from almost anywhere on the court. Baseball and boxing have sluggers, who swing to destroy, and often miss. And hockey has ... uh .... untrustworthy defenders? Overzealous me-first shooters? P.K. Subban?
For a league that plays in Dallas, Nashville, and something called the Saddledome, the NHL sure lacks for cowboys. Maybe Canada's national game too closely resembles its polite national character. Is it so hard to believe that a country that bags milk also produces the most boring athletes?
But alas, the real culprit here is actually Canada’s natural rival: Russia’s Soviet-era hockey teams. Ever since the Red Army elevated the game through its team play, hockey has belonged to systems, not to stars. And systems necessarily subjugate individuals.
P.K. Subban is quite the individual, and as such, tends to run afoul of systems, including the defensive system of Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, the mistake-free system of Team Canada coach Mike Babcock (in Sochi) and maybe even the vague, capital-S System against which Rage Against the Machine and so many others have rocked.
Indeed Subban has serious bona fides as hockey’s one true countercultural icon. He has been known to analytics nerds from the beginning: Subban entered the league as an instant statistical revelation, a dominant possession player at age 21. He has been disrespected: scratched in all but one Olympic game by Team Canada despite being the reigning Norris Trophy winner. He has been held down by the man: Therrien's scheme has made him statistically worse than before. And he plays with a style that all the cool kids love: all flashy goals and big hits.
His iconic status, though, has functionally killed any debate about Subban the player. There exist not opinions of P.K. Subban, but instead grand conceptions. To his supporters, Subban is a joy and an innovator, hounded by criticism that is sometimes tinged with such racial buzzwords as “athletic” and “undisciplined,” and held down by the antiquated ideas of his coaches. To his detractors, the defenseman’s penchant for turnovers and penalties, his lateness to team meetings and the way he frustrates his own teammates are all indicative of his fundamental selfishness both on and off the ice. Buying into either narrative creates a mindset where the other side is always wrong.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle, albeit skewed to one side (hockey clearly has a diversity problem, whereas Subban's turnover problem is mostly a fiction). But that is for another writer and another column. I merely want to analyze Subban's alleged faults as specifically as possible, as he is that rare player for whom all the criticisms are right, but all the critics are wrong.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics brought the P.K. Subban debate to its boiling point. His reported long-shot status during the selection process became a minor national crisis in Canada. He eventually made the team, but it was just a moral victory, as he played all of eleven minutes the entire tournament. Babcock came right out and said that Canada's coaches didn't trust him, which didn't exactly alleviate suspicions that, perhaps subconsciously, Subban’s race was a factor. How could the reigning 24-year-old Norris Trophy winner be the eighth best defenseman in his own country?
To the coaches’ credit, though, the Montreal star was actually being judged as the fourth-best right-handed defenseman on Team Canada, after Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo, a decent list. The competition on the left—Duncan Keith, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jay Bouwmeester, and Dan Hamhuis—was decidedly weaker. And believe it or not, this distinction matters given the strategies used by Team Canada.
Canada played a system in which the right D “gapped up.” The trio of Weber, Doughty, and Pieterangelo had the biggest responsibility on the team in terms of joining the rush, covering the neutral zone, and getting back on defense. It required players who could go from attack mode back to defense very quickly:
Here’s where “trust” comes in. This style would seemingly suit Subban well. He is, after all, a much better skater than Weber. Subban, however, loves to commit to plays, leaning into most of his checks with his hip or his butt. Facing the opposite way, he cannot de-commit as quickly as Weber did in the above clip. And while Subban’s backside-first technique makes him a punishing player adept at causing turnovers, it also creates situations like this one, described in Michael Farber’s profile of Subban in this week’s SI:
Seventy-five seconds left in regulation at the Bell Centre on Oct. 21 in a 1–1 game. The Red Wings’ Drew Miller carries the puck down the left boards, one-on-one against the Canadiens’ right defenseman. The smart play for Subban, the safe play, is to stand up, impede Miller and force a dump-in, but Subban chooses to line up Miller for a hip-check instead. Timing off, skates angled to the boards, Subban misses, and Miller slithers past, throwing the puck into the slot, creating a glorious game-winning scoring chance that Detroit does not cash.
Back on the Montreal bench, Subban beckons J.J. Daigneault, who coaches the Canadiens’ defensemen. Subban asks, “Why do I keep doing that?”
Here's the play in question:
It’s not that Team Canada didn’t trust Subban to make smart plays. With the ample freedom they were giving their right-side defenseman, they didn’t trust him to not over-commit to a play that might lead to a breakaway for their opponents. Odd-man rushes, in particular, were a risk Canada was right to minimize, as it was the one way an inferior team could put them on the precipice of an upset (see: Latvia).
Subban excels in Montreal by making calculated breaks from his assigned position in Therrien's system. On Team Canada, in a tournament in which the difference in talent between Subban and his opponents was much much smaller, the cost-benefit analysis was different. If Weber and Doughty could provide the offense needed—they tied for the team lead in Sochi with 6 points—then minimizing broken plays by benching Subban made some sense.
According to the advanced statistics, the MVP of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Penguins was whoever first thought to fire Michel Therrien as coach. Every team the Montreal-native coaches becomes much worse at puck possession. The Canadiens’ weak stats last season (24th by Fenwick) prevented pretty much anyone versed in analytics from taking them seriously in the playoffs. Combine that with the coach's affinity for benching and criticizing Subban, despite the defenseman’s great numbers, and you can see why analytically-inclined Habs fans consider Therrien to be the devil.
Therrien, for his part, sees himself as a man on a mission to help Subban become a top defenseman—kind of a weird stance to take considering that over the summer Montreal made Subban the highest paid defenseman (at least per annum) in hockey. Also from Farber’s story (buy our magazine!):
On a Thursday in late October, Therrien is at his desk at Montreal’s suburban practice facility. Behind the bench, his expression fits neatly into that slot between mournful acceptance and pained stoicism. Now his broad face is merry, almost playful. “Let’s put it this way,” Therrien says, “I have more meetings with P.K. about teaching the game than [with] a lot of the guys. P.K. needs to be pushed at times. We all know we have a special player. And I have a vision for him. I told him he has the potential to be one of the top D in the league, both ways. We’re going to work to that.”
Therrien gives this coy answer in the context of a video of him cursing out Subban that Canadiens brass tellingly let air on their TV show, 24CH. Here’s that moment, in which Therrien calls Subban and then-partner Josh Gorges into his office:
This video represents a rare and exciting moment for Eye Test, as I can compare my reaction to a play with a coach’s. I went back and watched the game from this episode—Oct. 9, 2013 against the Flames—and found Subban’s sin:
If you watch this video a hundred times, as I have, you begin to doubt Therrien. Subban was the trailer on a 2-on-1 (that was not his fault) and picked the wrong lane to fill, mainly because Gorges changed his mind about who he wanted to cover at the last minute. When I see Therrien rake his star player over the coals for something this picayune, I begin to fear the worst. He seems like the kind of coach who strives for a team that doesn’t make mistakes, as opposed to a team that makes great plays. The opposite of a making a bad play in hockey, after all, is not making a good play, but doing nothing. This kind of Pavlovian training—designed to make Subban afraid to make mistakes—seems like a surefire way to make him into a bad player.
The exchange that comes after Gorges leaves the room, however, gives the incident some needed context. Subban asks Therrien for clarification for something he said on the bench and Therrien pops off again: “Skate! Move the f------ puck. You’re not f------ there. I know you’re not there. I told the guys before the game, he’s not there. Just the way he practiced yesterday, he’s not going to be there. Same thing today.”
It's a little weird that Subban seems to be the last person to learn the coach is mad at him, but Therrien seems justified here for two reasons. First: Subban was playing terribly. I mean, he was playing fine, but for the several games of his I watched for this article, he looked the worst in this particular game. He skated lethargically and made slow decisions, which led to turnovers. Sometimes a coach needs to roast a player for playing uninspired hockey, even if he has to gin up some picky reason for calling him into his office.
And secondly, Subban's teammates had been begging for a coach that would ride Subban harder (via Farber):
For Subban’s veteran teammates, including current Stars winger Erik Cole, the root issues were his lack of “consistency” and “professionalism,” code for punctuality in the clockwork world of professional sports. “There was a stretch where he was great on the ice and almost gave off a [vibe that] he didn't care off it,” says Cole, who was hard on Subban. “There was a home game [in 2011–12]. A Saturday. He came in at 9:45, walked in pretty casual, like, What’s going on? It’s halfway through the year, bud. We always have 9:30 meetings. That morning some of the vets let [interim coach Randy Cunneyworth] know they’d appreciate something in the way of discipline. Not the first time it’d happened. He’d had a couple of free passes. Cunney said to just focus on the game. It made a lot of guys feel like P.K. could do no wrong. That can create an imbalance in the locker room.”
In this context, Therrien seems like just the coach the Habs and Subban needed. Except for one thing: Therrien’s ideas about hockey are still bad.
And here’s where the aforementioned catch-all ideas of P.K. Subban get people in trouble. Ideally, the Montreal coach would treat Subban as both exceptional and not exceptional. He doesn’t deserve special allowances in the locker room. But the Candiens’ system should be tailored to suit Subban’s strengths. Currently, it’s doing whatever’s the opposite of that. Montreal theoretically employs a defense-first system. Really, it’s just boring. They love to dump-and-chase and play back, but the strategy doesn’t give the Canadiens any noticeable advantage.
The Devils, a team with a proven ability to grind out games, carried the puck across the opposing blue line 44% of the time last season, based on data from Corey Szjander's All Three Zones project. That's a low number, but New Jersey was nevertheless a positive posession team, limiting opponents to 38% successful entries. Dallas, which uses crazy six-line stretch passes to play an offense-first game, entered the zone with possession 53% of the time, but still allowed just 44% successful entries from their opponents. Montreal, by contrast, gained the blue line with possession 46% of the time, but let their opponent's do it 47% of the time.
On a Stars team that gave its defesemen the green light in 2013–14, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley led the way with 35% and 30% controlled zone entries, respectively. Subban hovered around 30%, with no one else on his team even close. Guess why the idea of Subban playing for Dallas kept stat heads up at night this summer.
Alas, we live in an unjust universe, in which a good owner enticed his star player to stay despite the lack of support from Therrien. Every good reason Babcock had in Sochi for benching Subban in—he’s just another god on a crowded Olympus, his mistakes would be magnified—aren’t just untrue for the Habs, they’re wrong. Over the course of an 82-game season, Subban’s calculated risks yield sure benefits. He’s also the team’s best skater by a mile, and should have the green light to do this as much as he likes:
Back to my original point about there not being a term analogous to “gunslinger” in the hockey lexicon—I want to get away from Farber’s piece and excerpt a different Sports Illustrated profile of an athlete that ran afoul of his coaches: Jake Plummer. The exuberant former Broncos quarterback was the ultimate gunslinger. He loved to throw up Hail Mary passes, which went for interceptions and touchdowns in exactly equal measure (161 to 161 for his career). While not as good as Subban, Plummer was the kind of wild-card player who, at football’s most important position, could make a team a surprise contender with his high-risk, high-reward style. He retired at 32 to play handball and drink.
According Chris Ballard’s amazing story on Plummer’s post-NFL life, Jon Gruden, the lovably goofy coach who loves to call people “man,” tried to coax Plummer out of retirement once at a bar. While Plummer didn't take him up on the offer—the appeal of hanging out with his buds and playing handball was too great—he did reply, “That sounds sweet, man” and later:
Hey, I used to watch your games and check the stats. Your quarterback would throw like three picks, and you guys would still win. Now, you don’t think I don’t want to play for you guys? I can come down there and throw all the picks I want, and we’re going to win.
Now try to imagine Subban and Michel Therrien calling each other “man” and “dude,” drinking Coronas, talking about blowing up the NHL with crazy stretch passes and odd-man rushes.
Here's my gut feeling after administering the Eye Test to P.K. Subban: He didn’t necessarily belong on Team Canada, and his coach is right to kick him in the pants every once in a while. But he could also be the best player in the league if someone would just let him loose. This idea that Subban needs to conform to be an effective NHL player is just a failure of the sport’s collective imagination. Hockey may not realize it, but Subban is the sport’s first gunslinger. He just needs a coach willing to put him under center.