DETROIT – Long after most of the Montreal Canadiens had left the ice Friday morning, defenseman P.K. Subban(notes) was still shooting. He fired one final puck, launching it from just inside the blue line, smoking it right underneath the crossbar.
When he headed for the dressing room, the members of a youth team sitting in the stands at Joe Louis Arena – kids from suburban Detroit, mind you, not Montreal – called for him.
"Can I have your autograph?"
It was an odd snapshot. Here was Subban, immensely talented and incredibly popular even on the road, and yet, he's been a healthy scratch the previous three games.
"You in tonight?" one fan asked.
"Yeah," Subban said as he signed a No. 76 sweater.
It was a welcome sight for Habs fans, and hockey fans in general, when Subban returned to the lineup Friday night against the Detroit Red Wings. It was obviously welcome for Subban himself. He joked with goaltender Carey Price(notes) that he had gone to coach Jacques Martin's office and begged to play because Saturday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs will be the first 3-D telecast on "Hockey Night in Canada."
Subban was made for 3-D. He isn't a flat character like so many hockey players. He doesn't speak in clichés in interviews. He displays a rare flair on the ice. That's why he became a fan favorite when he burst onto the scene as the Canadiens made a run to the Eastern Conference finals in last season's playoffs.
And that's why Martin caused so much controversy and consternation in Montreal when he scratched Subban three games in a row after Subban made mistakes that led to the game-tying and winning goals Dec. 1 in a 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Fans want to see Subban play, and they want to see him play his way.
But remember, Subban is a rookie. He's 21 years old. The Canadiens aren't trying to crush his spirit, they're trying to channel it properly.
"We love his enthusiasm," Habs assistant coach Kirk Muller said. "People say, 'Oh, they're trying to tame him.' We're not taming him. We love all that stuff about him. He just has to learn when to do it and when not to."
Imagine being P.K. Subban. You've got an uncommon skill set. You play only two NHL games last season. Then you step into the playoffs after Andrei Markov(notes) goes down with an injury and you excel.
You make the team this season, and when you display your sweet moves at the Bell Centre – home to perhaps the most fun, sophisticated crowd in the league – they chant your name, encouraging you to do more.
But sometimes less is more.
"The biggest one for him, I think, is understanding the times to do the big spin-o-rama type," Muller said. "It's putting yourself in a better body position that you don't have to go to your backhand and turn away from plays. You can simplify it by just moving the puck a lot quicker.
"The NHL can be easier to play in because you play with better players – if you use your other guys. I think that's what he's learning. 'Hey, I can give the puck up because that guy's pretty good, too.' "
The margin for error in the NHL is too slim. Make a mistake, and your opponents will take advantage of it – just as the Oilers did Dec. 1 before Martin sat Subban.
So Subban sat and tried to find the line between safe and flashy, knowing full well how fuzzy that line can be.
"I don't know how many guys have found that line," he said. "I mean, there's a lot of guys that have played in this league for a really long time and still have trouble finding it, so it takes time."
When he returned against the Wings – a skilled, veteran team and a deep, patient organization that would much more likely keep a 21-year-old defenseman in the minors – Subban struggled in a 4-2 loss. He said he felt a step behind, like his feet were in cement. He fumbled pucks. He made one spectacular play – swatting the puck out of the air with his stick at the blue line to keep it in the Detroit zone on the power play – but that was about it.
Subban seems humbled a bit, even though he doesn't think he's cocky – words Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards(notes) used to describe him earlier this season. "I think a cocky guy would be a guy that would be like, 'I don't care. I'm the best player in the league,' " he said. "I've never said anything like that. I've never carried myself that way."
But P.K. is still P.K. He's a 3-D player. He just has to mix in some 2-D plays. After all, that's better than playing no D.
"When you sit out a little bit, it definitely takes the edge off," Subban said. "But it's not like it's a switch. You can't turn it on and turn it off. You know, I'm only human. As long as my head's in the right place, I'll be fine. I feel pretty confident about what I can do out there."