It was on the evening of Monday, January 28th that the tweet snuck into the timelines of more than 400,000 followers amongst discussions of starting goaltenders, potential pairings and, incomprehensibly, possible trade scenarios. The Canadiens had signed defensemen P.K. Subban to a 2-year contract, ending his nine days of unemployment that had seemed like so much longer, and reuniting a soon-to-be 4-1 team with arguably its most crucial component.
Now, five months later, the guy many wanted out of town; the guy people called the team's third-best defenseman; the guy that had no business being in the Olympic discussion; the guy who was Montreal's more mistake-prone Michael Del Zotto, has won hockey's most prestigious defensive award. Prior to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight, P.K. Subban was awarded the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in the NHL.
When Subban was drafted, 43rd overall back in 2007, he was about as high of a risk/reward pick as they come. Growing up a Habs fan in Ontario, a happy-go-lucky kid, most saw the pick as a nice story, a guy with great offensive potential that was unlikely to become anything more than a question-mark in the defensive end. It was tough to appreciate how far the eldest brother had come until our own Bruce Peter published this piece just a couple of days into the "holdout".
Even at 22 years of age on a last place team in 2011-2012, Subban had not just been an offensive and powerplay specialist, he had been a defensive force, one of the league's top penalty killers, who happened to be pretty decent in the offensive zone as well. It's a fact that most wouldn't notice, considering that his aggressive style occasionally left him out of position, but it's a fact that made the signing somewhat of a surprise. One of the top defensemen in the NHL was getting $2.875 million/year. He needed to prove himself.
"My focus is getting on the ice and helping this team win"
When the Canadiens came out firing to start the 2013 season, with Subban on the sidelines, the preeminent narrative was that the team played better without him because they were a team, while he was an individual. The team clearly didn't want to let his return steal the spotlight, and he was quick to testify that he didn't either. "My focus is getting on the ice and helping the team win," Subban said in a statement upon signing, "This is where my heart is, in Montreal."
And he proved it. With the Canadiens in the early stages of what would become an 11-game points streak in February, backup goaltender Peter Budaj misplayed a puck behind his net up 2-0 against the Flyers. Considering Budaj's personal struggles up to that point, and the team's inability to hold a lead all of last season, the mistake could been a back-breaker. But out of nowhere, Subban charged back and dived in front of Tye McGinn's shot, saving a sure goal and preserving the lead. From that point forward, his motivation to help the team was scarcely questioned.
A Deserving Winner
Ryan Suter led all defensemen in time on ice. Kris Letang led all defenseman in points per game. Those are the biggest arguments one has and will hear about why somebody other than Subban deserved to win this trophy. And it's not that those people are being willfully ignorant or misguided, at least not in most cases. The fact is that unless you're plugged into the world of hockey statistics, you probably don't know that there are better ways to judge a defenseman's worth - no, not +/-.
Our own Andrew Berkshire wrote two insightful posts when Subban's candidacy for the award was first being discussed. One examined how the his 2013 season compared to Erik Karlsson's from 2012. While Karlsson was and is a very good player, Subban's possession, production, and role dwarfed that of the Senators defenseman. While the latter was used more frequently and was the benefactor of less shooting luck, the performance of other Canadiens on the ice without Subban relative to Senators on the ice without Karlsson proved that Subban's season was, if not more impressive, at least on par.
The second post compared Subban with Ryan Suter, a fellow Norris nominee and thought by many as the key to Minnesota's first post-season birth since 2008. While the belief around the league is that Suter made rookie partner Jonas Brodin look good, the numbers suggest - although with a small sample size it's hard to know for sure - that Brodin may have been the possession-driver on the pairing. Either way, Subban's numbers trump Suter's in every possible way. Even with advances in statistics, metrics for judging defensemen are admittedly far from perfect, but they are more reliable than any other method of evaluation, including the so-called "eye test". There is no question that Subban is a worthy winner.
Looking back and looking forward
It's easy to look at a small sample of games and condemn a player when his flaws are magnified. Look at Erik Karlsson. Struggling with an injury, the 2012 Norris Trophy winner was torn apart in these playoffs by first Montreal and then Pittsburgh, but you didn't see media members questioning his decision-making, claiming he was a one-way talent. In fact, it was very much the opposite.
It's unlikely that Subban will ever have such a luxury. He will forever be criticized for every missed pinch, every questionable pass, every missed assignment. It's the nature of playing in Montreal, having real personality both on and off the ice, and - let's face it - being potentially the NHL's first black superstar. But that is both a blessing and a curse. Harnessed the right way, Subban can lead this team to a Stanley Cup, lift the trophy, stare down his naysayers, and become oen of the ultimate stories of vindication in the club and league's history. But let it rattle him, and he'll go the way of the Canadiens' last major award winner, Jose Theodore.
But that's a worry for next season and the seasons to come. Now all that PK needs to do is keep working hard and keep being himself. And maybe retweet some insults from this past January. I think we'd all be okay with that.