Another game, another brick tossed on the scale.
The Montreal Canadiens were locked in a closely-fought game with a very good St. Louis Blues team on Tuesday, but with the game tied down the stretch, one player was conspicuously absent.
Coach Michel Therrien is clearly sick and tired of fielding questions about his usage of defenceman P.K. Subban, but when he benches his star blueliner and fan favourite in the final minutes of a close game - again - they are bound to pour forth.
On Tuesday, Subban drew a boarding penalty against the Blues’ Ryan Reaves with six minutes to play, stayed out for the ensuing power play, and then didn’t see the ice for the final 4:38 of regulation.
He played hard defensive minutes against the Blues, starting a greater portion of his shifts in the defensive zone than any of his blueline mates (although Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz were matched up more often against St. Louis' top line).
Yet veteran Francis Bouillon took Subban’s usual spot alongside Andrei Markov in the final minutes.
It was a curious choice.
The 38-year-old Bouillon freely admits he isn’t especially comfortable on the right side and, despite limited minutes and managed exposure, had been on the ice for three even-strength goals against in his last two games, including the game-winner in the recent loss to Minnesota.
Still, Therrien’s hunch paid off: St. Louis didn’t score in regulation, and with at least a point secured Subban was sent out for two shifts in overtime.
The move does raise a question, however: why bench your leading scorer and Norris Trophy winner in that situation?
Therrien wouldn’t answer on Wednesday, and in fact said “I’m not going to comment on the ice time of any players.”
In the next breath he did just that, saying Subban’s 20:52 - about three minutes below his season average - was mostly the result of lower-than-usual power-play time and added that “(Subban) played a hell of a game” and was “solid in his own end, it was exactly what we’re looking for.”
One might reasonably ask: if that’s the case, why is it again that he wasn’t he out there in the game’s critical moments?
It’s become a trend in the last couple of weeks: when Montreal is down and needs a goal (i.e., against Minnesota, Denver and San Jose), Subban is on the ice in the waning moments; when it’s tied or the Habs are trying to protect a lead (i.e. against Dallas, the Rangers and St. Louis), he watches from the bench.
It’s hard not to infer that the coach, at minimum, isn’t completely satisfied with how Subban handles those situations (at worst, he simply doesn’t trust him not to screw up).
This is a player who makes mistakes, but if the coach has problems with Subban’s defensive sophistication or reliability there are ways to express it tactfully.
He’s also been known to over-sell potential penalty calls, but if the issue is maturity, why not say it out loud, the way he did supportively with Ryan White last year?
If he’s more comfortable matching up against the opposition with veteran defencemen in the late-going of close games, even one as limited as Bouillon (who he first coached in junior), what’s the harm in saying so?
Subban is 24, he isn’t yet the finished article, but he leads the team in points and its most dominant defenceman, he’s been trusted with more ice time at even strength than any other player - just not after the middle of the third period.
Yes, he gives the puck away sometimes, but according to the NHL stats (which are subjective) Markov gives it away more.
True, Subban has been on the ice for more goals against than any other Hab (17 compared to Markov’s 14), but when considered as a function of ice time, only Bouillon, who typically plays far fewer minutes against much weaker opposition, has been on the ice for fewer even strength goals per 20 minutes played.
Again, there’s a defensible case for putting Bouillon on the ice, but it would surely make life easier for Therrien if he simply stated it.
As in: “Subban is a special talent and one of our best players, but he’s still learning, and for now I’m more inclined to go with vets who have more experience than he does managing those situations.”
It’s entirely within Therrien’s remit to use Subban as he sees fit, but refusing to talk about his ice time in crucial situations isn’t going to make the questions go away.
In fact, as the season wears on they’ll only become more insistent.
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