Vicious slap shots and open-ice hits naturally grab people’s attention, but true genius is revealed in the subtleties.
It’s hard to overemphasize how difficult it is to patrol the blueline in the NHL, and those who do it best have a gift for spatial awareness, body positioning and for sniffing out trouble, then extricating themselves from same.
Often, it’s the stuff that happens when the television cameras are pointed elsewhere.
In a recent game against Boston, Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges stepped up just outside his own blueline to help out a teammate along the boards.
The puck squirted behind him into the Montreal end, but his partner, P.K. Subban, who had raced across the ice to his left in anticipation, quickly scooped it up and fired a hard, pinpoint diagonal pass to centre David Desharnais, who set sail up the far side of the ice.
The pass was one thing, being there to make it is another.
This week in Buffalo, Subban chased down a loose puck behind his net, held off the Sabres’ Brian Flynn, then casually made a one-handed dish to an open man. Later on the same shift, he created space for teammate Brian Gionta to skate away by deftly shielding Flynn.
“He’s better than anyone I’ve seen so far at being able to hold off a fore-checker, still get his feet moving, and make the breakout pass,” Gorges said of his younger teammate. “Whether it’s a five-foot pass or getting it out off the glass, his ability to shield guys off and make the play is second to none.”
The catalogue of such events in Subban’s sublime season verges on the inexhaustible. No other defenceman in the league creates space for himself in quite the same way.
The Toronto-born Subban leaves no one indifferent, but those who love to boo him – a vast and growing category – are blinding themselves to the small things that combine to make a big player.
Taken together, these moments provide far more compelling reasons than mere points for why Subban must win the Norris Trophy and be thrust into the Team Canada picture for Sochi.
Yes, Subban leads the league in goals and points from defencemen, and he and veteran Andrei Markov have become the most dangerous power-play rearguards in the NHL.
The list of people who bring Subban’s all-round skill set to the table – passing, stickhandling, abrasive physical presence, defensive IQ, special-teams ability, shooting, speed and elusiveness – is short (the only player who is comparable on all those fronts is Los Angeles Kings star Drew Doughty, and perhaps Pittsburgh’s Kristopher Letang).
It’s the defensive work, the growing emotional maturity, as well as durability and conditioning – Subban was in excellent shape when he turned up after a short contract impasse – that have impressed teammates and opponents alike.