I think one thing a lot of Habs fans can agree on right now is that the team's defence needs a bit of work. Okay; a lot of work. Andrei Markov needs a solid partner with some jam to his game, as well as the ability to play big minutes without getting burned in his own end. Some offensive talent would be a bonus. The D-corps as a whole needs a guy who can man the point on the PP like Bergeron, but without the defensive liabilities he brings. Size and strength, combined with mobility would be very useful. There's no doubt, either, that the Habs blueliners could use an infusion of youth. Guys like Hamrlik and Spacek have value in their experience, but now, in their mid-thirties, they get tired on big minutes and make mistakes because of fatigue. Add up all the needs on defence and the sum, for many fans, is PK Subban. The cries to call him up to help save the series with the Caps are escalating.
Do you remember the first game Subban played for the Canadiens? I remember an overall impression of speed and enthusiasm, but the one outstanding moment for me was a beautiful spinorama move at the blueline, followed by a couple of quick strides and a good, hard shot on goal. It was a great play; the kind that's going to make PK a star in Montreal. It's also the kind of play that's going to put him at risk of falling out of favour quickly.
The thing is, the kid is a thoroughbred. He's a great skater, he's got a hard shot, he can pass and he can play a tough game. Best of all, he's enthusiastic, positive, smart and well-spoken...and he can't wait to play for the Habs. We've seen his big smile on draft day and followed him through his World Juniors triumphs and his resoundingly successful rookie year in Hamilton. We caught tantalizing glimpses of what might be in his two games in Montreal. It's no wonder fans look at him and see a halo or a hero, depending on their sentiments.
It's also no wonder fans forget he's a twenty-year-old kid playing a very difficult position. All the positives about PK...and there are so very many...make us overlook the quiet warnings we're hearing from people like Guy Boucher. Boucher says PK is still learning to channel his enthusiasm properly. He says PK is getting better, but he doesn't know when the kid will be ready for the NHL. When the coach, especially the coach who's a bit of a budding superstar himself in many fans' minds, says the player isn't ready, we have to listen.
The last guy who was supposed to save the Habs from mediocrity rode into Montreal on a high, after winning the Calder Cup and being named the MVP. Carey Price ended up struggling midway through his rookie season and was sent back to Hamilton to clear his head. He went from god-like status (Jesus Price, anybody?) to the focus of very vocal derision at the Bell Centre during last year's playoff sweep by the Bruins. Price may yet become a big star for the Habs, but his road to this point has been bumpy, to say the least. A lot of people thought Price was ready for the NHL and to take on the Habs' number-one goaltending job at the age of twenty. Physically, at least, I agree he was; he could stop pucks as well as anybody. Mentally and emotionally, however, he wasn't ready and he's had to learn some hard lessons under the unflinching gaze of the public eye.
I see Subban piling up great stats (53 points in 77 games, plus-46) and honours (first-team AHL all-star, AHL all-rookie team) in Hamilton. He's saying all the right things too, about how he's learning everything he can in the minors, and that while he's looking forward to playing in the NHL, he's content to wait until the coaches think he's ready. All of this is good stuff and a sensible approach by the organization to managing the development of its best player.
My concern is the team has obvious needs on defence now, and the fans want a saviour. Depending on what happens in the off-season, Subban has a very, very good chance of making the NHL next fall. One of Hamrlik's or Spacek's contracts will almost certainly have to be moved to free cap space. There's probably not a better, cheaper option to fill the resulting vacancy than Subban. When he cracks the lineup, the team will get a great infusion of energy and blossoming ability on the blueline. The problem is, he won't be perfect.
That gorgeous spinorama he made in his first game as a Hab has been his go-to move for years. It'll work for him in the NHL too, as it did in his first game...for a while. Then, smart forwards are going to catch on and anticipate that play. Subban will get burned and it will take him some time to figure out how to adjust. He'll need tolerance and support from his team and its fans while he's making that adjustment. He won't get it for long, though. The impatient fans who pleaded for Carey Price to take the net in Montreal, then booed him off the ice a year later, will be screaming for Subban's head after a particularly juicy giveaway leads to a Habs loss.
I harbour no illusions that people will be supportive of a rookie's mistakes when two points are on the line. What I do hope for, however, is that when Subban *does* make the team, he's mentally ready for the criticism that comes his way. He's been among the best wherever he's played, and his sparkling personality has drawn people to him in a positive way. He says he's ready for adversity as he learns the NHL game, but he's never been the subject of public ridicule before. It's going to be tough.
The team did the right thing to leave Subban in Hamilton for the playoffs. His presence wouldn't change the outcome of the Habs/Caps series on its own, and the negative fallout of being part of another season of post-season futility in Montreal if the Habs lose wouldn't help his development. When he makes the team, he'll make a difference, even if it's not right away. Leaving him alone to develop under Boucher and the Hamilton staff is the best chance fans have of seeing the best PK Subban their ticket money can buy.