Pernell Karl Subban must be having a pretty nice summer. Since his draft in the second round in 2007, he's won two junior world championships, put up a stellar rookie season in Hamilton and roared onto the NHL scene with the poise of a veteran during the playoff heat. He was disappointed by the Habs' fall to earth at the hands of the Flyers, and even more disappointed when his Bulldogs, the team he calls his "second family," went down in Game Seven of the AHL semi-finals two days later. Still, young Pernell Karl is set for the summer. He'll blow into camp in September, fit, strong and 21 years old, with a spot in the Canadiens' top-six his to lose. Really, the only way he could not end up in the Habs' top six would be if he burned a Quebec flag in front of Pierre Boivin's office door while urinating on Youppi, just as a tour of disabled kids passes by.
So, PK will be the big new rookie. Unless the world implodes or he has a desperately horrid training camp, he'll be on the Canadiens' defence next season. The question is not whether the kid will slump in his first full NHL season, but what will happen when he does.
I have no worries about PK himself. He's the epitome of confidence and his certainty about the level of his own skill seems unwavering. There are a couple of things that do worry me, though. First is how Jacques Martin and Perry Pearn will react when the rookie struggles. Their handling of Ryan O'Byrne isn't cause for great optimism as a precedent. Last year we saw Marc Andre Bergeron make horrible mistake after horrible mistake and remain in the lineup. O'Byrne got one chance per game and if he screwed up, he sat for the rest of the night. He was scratched in favour of Bergeron more often than not, after everyone was healthy. O'Byrne has taken his benchings and scratchings in stride. He never complains and keeps working for his next chance. Subban is a different kind of personality. I don't know if he's ever had to deal with being relegated to the sidelines because the coaches don't like his on-ice performance. If Martin handles him like he's handled O'Byrne, it may not be as simple a decision and the consequences may be more far-reaching.
I respect the way Subban's handled himself through his meteoric rise in hockey. He's always projected a positive attitude and a humility a lot of guys in his position wouldn't have. It was impressive to see him report to development camp with guys just drafted, and declare there's always something to learn even after you've played twenty minutes a game in the playoffs. So far, however, he's been able to maintain those characteristics because he's always succeeded. It'll be challenging for him if he's faced with what feels like failure. If he rises above it and manages to keep his emotions on an even keel, he'll be fine, but there's a definite risk there.
The second thing I worry about when Subban navigates the treacherous waters of being an NHL rookie is the crowd at the Bell Centre. Fickle is too charitable a term for the way some people treat their own team. The fans want the newer, fresher version of the guy they worshipped last year. They scream for prospects to make the team, then have no patience with them if the kids slump or make big, glaring defensive errors. The guy they demanded to see brought up from Hamilton should be demoted by Christmas if the paying customers had their way. It can be really hard for a young player to be the toast of the town one day and the biggest bum on ice the next. It's harder if the kid lives by himself in a big, tempting city like Montreal.
PK Subban has all the talent he needs to be a very good player in the NHL, and this year he'll get his chance to prove that. We all want him to step in and be for the Habs what a guy like Tyler Myers is to the Sabres or Drew Doughty is to the Kings. He might be that player someday. Chances are, though, he won't get there unless he has a few ups and downs first. A kid like him should be handled carefully to make sure he gets where he's capable of being. I'm not talking babying him like the team has babied Carey Price, but just giving the guy more than one chance. If he gets caught at the blueline on a spinerama that leads to a breakaway, yes, the coaches should correct him, loudly if necessary. Then they should send him right back out for his next shift. Martin needs to remember that no kid with enthusiasm and tons of skill learns much when he's nailed to the bench.
Similarly, the fans need to remember that even if Subban is the goat sometimes, he's still the player they wanted so badly to make the team. Players might say they don't hear the booing, but they do, and it hurts. Fans also need to keep in mind that the kid they're booing today is the free agent of tomorrow who'll remember the loyalty shown to him when it's his turn to show some back.
I can't wait to see PK Subban on the Habs blueline this year. He's going to make some spectacular rushes, he'll be huge fun on the powerplay, he'll give great quote and he'll skate like the wind. I want to see Martin try him in the shootout, and I know he'll use his size to paste a few unsuspecting forwards. I know he'll also make some truly boneheaded plays, he'll probably go through a scoring drought and he may even cost the team a game. It's all part of the ride. We need to suck it up and take the bad with the good, because I think the good is going to be very, very good and we'll be glad we waited for it.