Here's how Merriam Webster defines the term, "scapegoat:"
1: a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur
a : one that bears the blame for others
b : one that is the object of irrational hostility
In the case of P.K.Subban, definition 2(a) is happening to him right now, but it's definition 2(b) we should be worried about.
Before you can say "wait a second...the kid's not blameless," we can all agree that no, he's not. He very often makes the risky choice when the simple one is both easier and safer. He winds up for half an hour before he takes a poorly-aimed slapshot, when a quick, accurate wrister would do. He yaps at and needles his opponents, but isn't very good at answering the bell when they come looking for payback. He's been seen on TV arguing with his coaches. And he sometimes irritates his teammates enough that they go after him in practice. All of that is true.
However, on the other side of the ledger beside his name are a whole lot of good things, beginning with his promise. The average Habs fan probably wasn't aware P.K.Subban was in the world until the 2007 draft. It had been a good draft for Montreal, with two first-round picks and both choices, Ryan McDonagh and Max Pacioretty, looking like keepers. So, when the Canadiens' brass stepped up to the podium for the 43rd overall pick in the second round, it was with the sense that any further draft success would be gravy.
About five minutes after his name was called, though, it was apparent that Subban would be different. First, he was a black kid from the toughest part of Toronto, which separated him immediately from ninety-nine percent of the other hopefuls in the room. Second, he spoke in something other than clichés. His exuberance at having been chosen by the team he grew up supporting drew media like bees to pollen. He told them he hoped to make the big team at training camp, that the Habs wouldn't be sorry they picked him and that one day he'd help the Canadiens win the Cup, after which he'd bring it to Toronto and parade it around. If the media were impressed with him at that point, the fans fell in love with him.
In the time since he landed on the hockey map for Canadiens fans, he's represented Canada at the world juniors twice. He had a successful year, including making the AHL All-Star team, under Guy Boucher in Hamilton, and scored a point in his first NHL call-up that February. He made the big team for good in the most pressure-packed environment possible: Game Six of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In the absence of key veterans, the rookie Subban played twenty-plus minutes a game as the Habs enjoyed their best post-season run since 1993. He looked like a star in the making and fans chanted his name. His first full NHL season ended with respectable numbers and a spot on the league's All-Rookie team.
Now, here we are in one of the worst seasons in Canadiens history and Subban seems to be taking more than his share of the criticism for what's gone wrong. It's true he's making lots of mistakes, but debatable whether he's making more than Hal Gill, who's got seven points and is a minus nine. Or Tomas Kaberle, who's got one more point than Subban, but is a wretched minus 12. Subban's got 19 points and is even in plus/minus. Yet, certain elements in the media and among fans are suggesting that he's a liability on the ice, has a bad attitude off it, and is not immune from trade talk. Ex-coach Jacques Martin, purposely or not, stirred the pot when he said that Subban has difficulty following the game plan, is possibly more interested in himself than the team and generally has a whole lot of growing up to do. Martin's comments have many people making trade proposals that send Subban to Anaheim for Bobby Ryan, or similar swaps.
How quickly disgruntled fans can dismiss every good thing a player has done in the last four years. What they forget is P.K.Subban is 22 years old. Most kids of that age are just stumbling bleary-eyed from university, ink still wet on their brand-new degrees and no inkling of how they'll put them to use. Or they're bumming around Europe, finding themselves. Or they're working a minimum wage job that pays the rent and lets them party every weekend. Very few of them are expected to anchor an NHL team's injury-ravaged defence corps. Jack Todd in the Gazette points to Erik Karlsson in Ottawa as being both younger and better than Subban, but he neglects to point out that not every kid grows up at the same pace.
P.K.Subban is having some very public growing pains, but he's one of the kids it's worth waiting for. For every giveaway he makes, there are two nice outlet passes. For every dumb penalty, there are a couple of shots blocked on the PK. For every spat he has in practice, there are three teammates he makes laugh. There are a whole lot of reasons to expect Subban to grow into the talent we know he's got.
When he was called up in those playoffs two years ago, he conducted himself like the consumate pro we hope he'll end up being some day. At the same time, he was a twenty-year-old who was listening to the sweet chimes of his name on twenty-one thousand tongues every night. Adulation like that can turn the head of the most sensible player, let alone that of a young man just starting to realize the dream of a lifetime.
If Subban has lost focus, he's certainly young enough to pull back and reset his priorities and attitudes. A great deal of this will be the responsibility of management. By now, most people realize Randy Cunneyworth won't be the Canadiens' coach in September. The team has an opportunity to bring in a person who can mentor a player of Subban's calibre and teach him how to use his talent to the best of his ability, while guiding him along on the road to becoming a real pro.
That's where the second part of that definition comes in. While Subban might be taking more than his share of heat for the state of the team, he's starting to attract an unwarranted amount of hostility. It's this to which the already-jumpy management is overly attuned right now. Firing Jacques Martin and trading Michael Cammalleri mid-game were panicky, reactive moves. They're just the kind of decisions that make fans worry Pierre Gauthier might be quick enough on the trigger to trade a guy like Subban. That would be a terrible mistake at this point in his development. He's not perfect, but he's going to get better. Possibly, a whole lot better. When Carey Price was glaring at his defencemen and breaking his stick after losses two seasons ago, he looked like his attitude might be writing his ticket out of Montreal. Watching him now, it's hard to remember that entitled, spoiled kid. Subban will grow up just as well.
The problem fans are dealing with right now is the frustration and disappointment of this wretched season. Subban is becoming the focus for some because he represents all the team's inherent ability that's just not panning out on the ice. As they say, love and hate are two sides of the same coin. In this case, Subban is the lightning rod because so many hoped he would be the one to lead the team into a better future. Watching him struggle epitomizes the team's struggle. When this passes; when the team turns it around and starts winning again, nobody will be picking Subban apart. And, most likely, we'll be really glad to have him.