You know how it is with the NBA. Watch the final four or five minutes of any game and you’ve probably seen all the drama.
It’s getting to be the same way with the Montreal Canadiens.
The biggest story in La Belle Province these days isn’t whether the Habs won or lost, but whether Michel Therrien played P.K. Subban in the dying minutes of a close contest. Because, in a lot of games lately, the coach of the Canadiens has concluded that it’s safer to glue the All-Star’s behind to the bench during crunch time.
Subban, you might recall, won the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL last season, making him the sort of guy most coaches would want on the ice with the game on the line. Of course, no one is suggesting he won that award because of his unmatched shutdown abilities. He is, first and foremost, an offensive weapon, someone who helps keep the puck out of his net by moving it as far from his zone as possible.
But that hasn’t been enough for Therrien.
Take Tuesday night’s game against St. Louis. With the game tied at two, Subban was a spectator for the final four minutes-plus of regulation while Therrien sent Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Raphael Diaz and Douglas Murray over the boards to nurse it home.
Subban did earn a couple of shifts in OT, but the Habs already had a point in the bank and were playing against a Western Conference opponent so really, there was nothing at risk.
That was just the latest example of what’s clearly become a trend.
Subban fell out of the trust tree on Oct. 25 when he played one shift during the final five-plus minutes of a 4-1 win over the Ducks. Not exactly a game-on-the-line situation, but Therrien obviously saw something that made him uncomfortable with putting him out there.
It continued on Oct. 28, when Subban played one shift during the final 4:17 in a 2-0 win over the Rangers. And it happened again on Oct. 30, when he got one twirl during the final 5:18 of the game as the Habs held on to beat the Stars, 2-1.
With each successive application of Krazy Glue to Subban’s bottom, the story has taken on a new layer of intrigue and conspiracy. It escalated to the point that today oddsmaker Bovada issued lines on his chances of making Team Canada — yes: -200 (1/2); no: +150 (3/2) — and the likelihood that he’ll be wearing La Sainte-Flanelle at the start of the 2014-15 season. (They say it’s 7/2 that he’ll be playing for another team).
If Subban ends up watching the end of tonight’s game against Ottawa, they’ll probably post odds on whether his new nickname will be Grocery Stick or Splinter Bottom.
Another late-game sit-down would be a bold move for Therrien, who is taking his share of heat for his use of the blueliner. After all, Subban is angling for a spot on Team Canada. He’s also in a contract year, leading some fans to worry that this could damage the relationship between Subban and the team.
Therrien does have some responsibility to nurture that relationship, but his job depends on his ability to win games. And if he feels that Gorges and Murray and Markov give him a better chance to lock down the W, then that’s who he needs to play. That feeling may change by tonight, tomorrow, next week or next month, but he has to do what’s best for the team, not one player.
And ultimately, these benchings might not even be that big a deal for Subban.
Do they hurt his chances of contending for another Norris? They don’t help, but he can change the narrative with a strong finish, just the way Alex Ovechkin did last season.
Do they hurt his chances of making Team Canada? Maybe . . . but probably not as much as some think. It’s not like Subban was going to be used in a shutdown role in Sochi. That job is for the big boys like Shea Weber and Drew Doughty. So Subban, if he makes the club, would likely be slated for a protected role, playing third pair at even strength along with some power play duties.
And do they hurt him in his contract talks? Hardly. He walks into FGM Marc Bergevin’s office, plunks his Norris on the table and says, “Pay me.” If the GM balks, he goes to arbitration, where the award and his offensive stats will outweigh any counter-argument and get him top dollar, say, $6.5-$7 million, on a one- or two-year deal.
That’s not to say none of this matters. It has to hurt Subban’s pride to be treated like a rookie when the game’s on the line, and it’s likely to make him more obstinate when those contract talks start in the next couple weeks. But he can’t put himself before the team. And if the other guys keep battening the hatches late, then he has to respect that.
And everyone else has to respect that Therrien might actually know what he’s doing.