Subban staring at a bright future

by A.J. Atchue || for

It seems more inevitable by the day that defenseman P.K. Subban is Montreal-bound and will enjoy a lengthy career in the NHL.

And if the 2009-10 season does indeed turn out to be his only full year in the American Hockey League, he is certainly leaving his mark.

One of the Canadiens’ top young prospects, Subban possesses a dynamic set of skills along with a firm confidence – but well short of cockiness – in his ability to put them to use.

That combination has paved the way for a monster rookie campaign as a member of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal’s top affiliate.

“I have a lot of skills that I like to use out there, and it’s just a matter of knowing when to use them and how to use them,” Subban said. “I’ve done that at every level, and I’m just happy to see that it’s continuing to work here.”

Oh, it’s worked, for sure.

A second-round draft pick (No. 43) by Montreal in 2007, Pernell Karl Subban leads AHL rookie defensemen with 18 goals and 53 points in 74 games for Hamilton this season. His 53 points trail only two rearguards in the entire league, and are also good for a share of third place among all rookies, forwards included.

Subban has excelled at the offensive end of the ice and on the power play – his 11 man-advantage goals are tied for the team lead – and defensively in even-strength situations, currently boasting a plus-46 rating that would be the highest in the AHL in 17 years.

The native of Rexdale, Ont., participated in the 2010 AHL All-Star Classic, appeared in his first two NHL contests with Montreal, and last week earned selections to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team and First All-Star Team.

“I try to be as well-rounded as possible, but the feedback I’ve received all through hockey is to use my skating to my advantage,” Subban said. “It’s one of those things where it helps me move the puck up the ice, helps me get out of situations that I maybe don’t want to be in, and it’s something that I have to continue to use to be successful.”

Subban is no stranger to being known as a quick offensive-minded defenseman. He piled up 76 points in 56 junior games with Belleville (OHL) in 2008-09, and recorded three goals and six assists while helping Canada capture gold at the 2009 World Junior Championships.

This year, the 20-year-old has developed into one of the key cogs for a Hamilton squad which enters the final week of the regular season with the AHL’s second-best record at 51-16-3-7, good for a franchise-record 112 points.

“He’s an extremely enthusiastic individual and player whose got tremendous athletic abilities,” said first-year Bulldogs coach Guy Boucher. “It translates on the ice into speed, the ability to protect the puck extremely well, and to be able to get away from a lot of the traffic is probably his biggest asset. He’s one of the most mobile defensemen I’ve ever had.”

When asked who they try and model their style of game after, many players will rattle off a list of guys they watched growing up or who may still be active. Subban’s choice, though a little more dated, is revealing. He went right to the top of his craft.

“I just think that Bobby Orr is the best defenseman to play the game,” said Subban. “He was solid at both ends of the rink, and people respected him both on and off the ice. That’s something that I think has to be a big quality in some of the great players, so I try and make it a part of me as a person and as a player.”

Like Orr, Subban frequently tries to use his speed and strength to jump into the play offensively, use the entire ice, and not limit himself to being strictly a defensive defenseman.

His numbers speak for themselves, but one of the key elements of Subban’s development this year has been establishing when to take a risk aimed at producing offense, and when it’s better to sit back.

“We’ve tried to tame it down a little bit – at the beginning of the year, he was jumping in at all kinds of moments where it wasn’t needed,” Boucher said. “He can go end to end and create offensive chances, but what he’s done is improve the ratio of when to do it and when not to do it.”

Subban acknowledges that there will always be critics of a defenseman employing his run-and-gun brand of hockey, and those who say such a style won’t translate well to the NHL.

Does he let such negative thoughts get to him? Absolutely not. But does he also recognize he can always be improving and diversifying his game in order to make it to the next level? Of course.

It all comes back to the maturation process and, again, confidence without being cocky.

“As long as I’m helping my team and doing the right things out there, that’s all that matters,” Subban said. “The only critics I really listen to anyway are my coaches. For them, it’s positive criticism, and there’s times when I’m learning. I’m young, I’m still making mistakes, but I’m always learning.”

And given that Subban’s offensive prowess has always been such a key component to his game, it’s on the defensive end where he’s shown the most progress between October and April.

“If you look at his plus/minus, it shows that he’s taken his defensive game very seriously this year,” Boucher said. “We’d heard that he was just an offensive defenseman, and that was our first impression, that he might be a little unreliable defensively. But truth is, he’s very good defensively.”

“The problem was he had his mind on offense most of the time. The minute he thinks defense, he just doesn’t get beat one-on-one.”

Like most young players, Subban plans to work hard this summer and come to training camp in September ready to battle for an NHL spot. For a guy who grew up following the Canadiens, earning a full-time gig with the big club would be a dream come true.

“I’ve been pretty lucky to be able to come into an organization like the Montreal Canadiens, and my first year to be on a winning team and be a big part of that,” said Subban. “It’s amazing, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s been a learning process for me – I’ve learned so much this year, and I’m going to continue to learn.”