In the Montreal Canadiens’ orbit, it is perhaps the buzziest of buzzwords: team concept.
Invoking said notion earlier this week, coach Michel Therrien nailed the keyster of his best skater – and freshly-minted Team Canada defenceman – P.K. Subban for 11 minutes of the third period with his team down two goals on the road.
There’s an argument of course that the only concept that matters involves taking two points, or at minimum one, but no, Therrien decided that Subban – whose sin was taking a stupid penalty at the end of the second period by punching the Philadelphia Flyers’ Sean Couturier in a post-whistle scrum – needed to be made an example of, or somesuch.
No one is bigger than the team, and if hurting the team in short term to make that point is required, so be it.
This, as is typical of events involving Therrien and Subban, has become A Thing, with fans, commentators and various formers (coaches, players) weighing in pro or con.
On Friday, both parties sought to minimize the affair.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s not such a big thing, we’re talking about a lack of about eight minutes in ice time, what’s that, four shifts? It’s not that much,” Therrien said.
Subban, for his part, said “that’s the coach’s decision, listen, we’re running a team here. That’s what the verdict was, I just took it, and when it was time to play I went out and did my thing.
“It’s a scrum, sometimes emotions get the best of you, but you’ve got to control that, especially at the end of a period . . . right now, we’ve got the best team in the world coming into our building on Saturday so that’s where my focus is,” Subban said.
When it was put to him there’s a perception Therrien is unduly harsh toward his top player, Subban interjected: “listen, he’s the coach, at the end of the day he’s got to make decisions in the best interests of the team. We’re running a team here, it’s not P.K.’s team or Carey Price’s team, it’s the Montreal Canadiens and everybody has to fall under the same rules. That’s what it is. If that happens to somebody else, the same thing will happen.”
The 24-year-old brushed aside questions about whether he feels slighted by the benching, “it’s not my job to talk about how I feel, if you have a question about the game I’ll answer it . . . this is about the team, it’s not about me, it should never be about me.”
Therrien was more expansive, saying some interesting things about his star defenceman.
Perhaps the most revealing bit: “(Subban) is a player who needs to be supervised to perform at his best.”
Despite the James Norris Memorial Trophy and the Olympic nod, it appears coach doesn’t trust player to handle his business on his own.
To be fair, Therrien also insisted that “I’ve got a great relationship with P.K. Subban” and insisted repeatedly that he has no fear whatsoever that his star performer will tune him out.
“We communicate a lot. He understands our (benching) decision, by the way, and he totally agrees,” Therrien said. “There’s not one player who wants to be treated differently, especially with those sorts of things.”
That may be, but the coach has evidently concluded Subban regularly needs a kick up the backside, and he has just the boot to apply it – it’s a delicate approach to take with a player who is due to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Earlier this season, Therrien pointed the finger at Subban after a loss in Colorado where the 24-year-old made a giveaway that led to an insurance goal (to hand the defeat on him was, to be kind, somewhat tendentious).
It’s true that in the games that followed, the rearguard’s defensive play improved, although whether that was the result of Therrien’s words or the fact that his playing time suddenly increased (including in the final minutes) is an open question.
What isn’t in question is the fact that Subban wasn’t playing terribly up to that point. He had 14 points in 14 games going into the Colorado game, and his underlying possession numbers were strong – even if his ice time was being limited and he wasn’t being used in the final minute of close games.
Therrien’s recollections are somewhat different: “his concentration wasn’t there” in the early and so the team decided to send the message publicly “to get his attention”.
“From that moment onward, he brought his game to another level, he paid more attention to the details, it’s one of the reasons he was able to carve out an Olympic spot. Believe me, if he’d continued like the way he was going over the first month and a half, I’m not sure he’d have made it. I could have crossed my arms, been a good guy, said ‘it’s all good, carry on’ and in the end he hadn’t been rewarded by going to the Olympics, I would have gone to bed at night knowing I hadn’t done my job,” Therrien said.
Fair enough, but the whispers within the Team Canada brain trust about Subban’s defensive frailties – which have been more imagined than they are real throughout his career – were already being heard.
Establishing cause and effect is rarely simple when it comes to matters of human ability; sure, there had been a few costly turnovers and penalties, but Subban is hardly alone in committing them.
In Therrien’s defence, it’s true that he is particularly harsh on players who take dumb penalties – Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan White, Lars Eller and Andrei Markov have all tasted the bitter medicine in the past two seasons – and there’s no reason for Subban to be spared.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, the message is sent on a bad penalty, we’re not going to tolerate it. I think that was a message not just to P.K., but to the entire team. If you can do that to arguably our best player, then it’s a wake-up call for everybody,” said defenceman Josh Gorges, an associate captain and Subban’s defensive partner.
Therrien did sound several conciliatory notes, talking about Subban’s exceptional talent and personality, and said he’s simply trying to draw the most out of the player on his team that can give him the most.
“We understand P.K. is an important part of our hockey team. He’s still young, he’s a young leader, we want to make sure there’s another level for his game to reach. We want him to be a big leader for this club for a long time, and that’s part of the process,” he said.
So it’s likely not the last flashpoint that will ignite between the two, although incidents like the Philly benching sometimes offer a side benefit.
On Friday, it meant another day where Therrien didn’t have to answer questions on why it is his team has gone a pedestrian 6-6-2 over the past five weeks, and why it is continually dominated in possession.
A team that statistically is among the league’s stingiest defensively has contrived to give up 41 goals in its last 14 games, while scoring only 30 (it is also mired in a 3-for-33 stretch on the power play).
Given Therrien is in the second season of his second go-around in Montreal, and the average tenure of a Habs coach is a little over two years – such has been the case since the team won its last Stanley Cup – he’s probably okay with the attention focusing elsewhere.