Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Fall Guy

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.


Dave said...

Too good, JT. We should unite our blogging forces again, my dear other winger.

Anvilcloud said...

Excellent. Stupidity is running amok, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

At times it seems like Montreal is inhabited by vultures endlessly circling the Habs, waiting to attack at the slightest hint of weakness.

The attacks start slowly, and then increase in frequency and intensity until they achieve their objective or are driven back to their haunts where they will patiently wait for the next victim.

Keeping the vultures at bay is the job of the GM. Gainey did it with Brisebois. When will Gauthier defend PK?


Anonymous said...

Didn't you ask for JM's resignation early December? I don't understand why you now say that firing him was panicky.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you wrote. Nevertheless, in the last 57 years, I have never seen or heard of a player getting in a shouting match with a coach (well, at least not in the NHL).

Anonymous said...

Fans don't want PK traded. It seems the Mtl media is looking for a story. They are the one looking for a trade (excep M. Brunet from La Presse). Most fans are weary of Gauthier trying to save his *ss!

Unknown said...

couldn't agree more. let's write off this season and ALL it's crazy baggage...plan for the future, and PK is certainly part of that future if we're smart!

Anonymous said...

PK will be ok and will develop into a fine defenseman. Jack Todd's comments regarding PK are ludicrous. I agree not every kid develops at the same pace. Jack Todd's recent writings show his frustration with the habs and are not very well informed. His writing is becoming mob mentality.
I agree with you patience is the key. I'm glad Pk is a hab. He will grow into his role.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post JT! I can't get over Jacques Martin's hypocritical and classless statements. If PK Subban was such a negative force, why did Martin play him 24 minutes a game? And if Martin says he never lost the room, what the hell was he doing criticizing his former players on television? Martin's firing may have been panicky, but I'll take PK over Martin any day of the week!


Anonymous said...


Yanne L Véronneau said...

Totally agree.

I really hope Molson puts together an all star team for the 7th floor, and soon. In today's game, nurturing home grown talent is essential. Leadership and vision from upstairs would go a long way in providing the needed support and a proper base for these kids to grow from.

I would expect to see management and coaches publicly defend and support their players a little more.

When he started out Crosby stayed at Mario's, Sean Couturier currently lives with Brière... who does that in Montreal? Who's providing structure for these kids?

Ribeiro, Grabovski, Latendresse, S. Kostytsin... (and you could add the likes of D'agostini, Higgins and Komisarek to the list). So much talent wasted.. it's a real shame.

Pierre P. said...

Trading Subban would be the worst possible thing to do, for the present as well as for the future. Anybody with half a brain can see his tremendous upside. And if you trade him now, who are you going to give his minutes to? Weber? Diaz?
I don't believe Gauthier is actually shopping PK. Nobody can be THAT stupid, right? Right?

Woodvid said...

Amen. I'm worried we'll see another Chris Chelios disaster here.

Anyone have video of PK's shouting match on the bench?

Steve said...

Right on, it used to be you waited until 25 to measure a player, even if PK does not improve 1% he still would be top 4 defense on any team in the NHL. Yanne makes a very valid point about how many players have fallen to St Catherine's st. Its embarrassing when you have to use the Leaf as a good example, but Burke would be raging if the media went after Luke Schenn. Where is PG, and since Mr Molsen has started shooting off his mouth in a bad way, he should be stepping in now, and JM is still a scout, he should be taken down hard, and even fired for his remarks.

soperman said...

Great post.

There is a "goat" who should be of the "scape" variety. But would the hostility be rational or irrational?

dwgs said...

I have zero confidence in the brain trust of the Canadiens right now. If they trade PK I'm pulling the plug on my fandom for a long long time. This is not an idle threat, I've been growing more and more discontented the past couple years and that would be the last straw.
Oh and are we actually considering Jack Todd's opinion now? Has it come to this? Jesus wept.

Shawn W said...

This is my first comment on your site. You have quickly become among the top of hockey writers concerning our beloved Canadiens. I always look forward to and have really enjoyed the insights and humor you've injected over the past two seasons. Reality checks like this one are needed in the madness that is hab land and I can only hope the powers that be will somehow hear them. Thanks and Keep it up!

the Maritimer said...

If Habs management pulls the trigger on a Subban trade, there better be something of equal or greater value coming back. I'm talking a Toews or Tavares type forward or Shea Weber or Ryan Suter type defenceman.

Pierre Lacroix should have been charged with grand theft larceny for what Montreal got for Roy.

G said...

I believe the whole thing is media driven. We can all say whatever we want but the media can incite "campaigns" that even Big Jean can not quell.

Subban is PR gold. He is a tired young man who nonetheless takes time and effort to represent his team.

Much ado about nothing. Bobby Orr used to get beaten on D all the time, make terrible passes, and generally score a lot. PK isn't scoring a lot. If he would stop trying to score and put the puck into the crowd to be batted in the points and goals would come.

Kid needs coaching and to chill is all.

moeman said...


Young HF29 said...

amen JT!


UK3X said...

Outstanding JT - Well done!

the BaruCH said...

Great stuff JT as usual. But don't you think the team should address the weird issue around the league the crowds constantly boo PK? I might be looking through Habs coloured glasses but PK seem to me to be far from the dirtiest or roughest or even pesky Lapierreiest players in the league. Even if he is pesky, crowds don't boo Lapierre as lustfully in every arena. He is a visible minority, and potentially the greatest black player (pace Iginla and Fuhr) so far in the NHL. Many people, on and off the ice do not want to see hockey become a black man's game. just saying....

Anonymous said...

Wow just stumble to your blog and its excellent!!!! I totally agree with all that you said here… I really got annoyed with the media (especially the French media (RDS) were trying to do with Subban… im in Toronto and I need RDS to watch the games… and it was to a point that I had to mute these clowns. They were criticizing EVERY move subban was making… If another player made the same mistake it was OK ..but if subban made one.. it was the worse thing in the world. To a point that you could sense the sarcasms in their comments (border line racist ones)…. Now fast forward subban had at least 3-4 excellent games…but no mention if his play… they are just waiting for him to make a mistake so they can jump on him…. Now word is that Edmonton and other teams are VERY VERY interested in him…. I am a Habs fan…but imagine subban in Edmonton with the rest of that young team??? A place where he will be able to play his style of hockey…. Just a thought….

One again Nice blog!!
Sam **

Max Gray said...

His slew footing is a concern, and his constant not backing up his cheap shots. I'm not worried about him getting traded, I'm worried about his rep and getting the hell beat out of him. P.K. Subban ain't no Chris Chelios, J.T., he just thinks he is. I think he is about to find out otherwise.