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Wither Pernell Karl

Somewhere behind Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane celebrating a goal scored on Peter Budaj is PK Subban getting blamed for another goal against.

Admittedly, I’m using a disproportionate amount of words in this space discussing the Montreal Canadiens and their season, but can I really help it if they’re so damn interesting? We’re not even into the new year, and the team has already been faced with regression, trades, firings and a language controversy.

What I can’t get away from is the never-ending storyline that seems to creep up with Montreal’s #76.

The news that PK Subban, the young and impressionable probably-future-superstar of les Habitants was a healthy scratch for last Thursday’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets could have come as a surprise to the hockey fan not keeping up with everything Montreal this season, but to some, it’s just business as usual. The season has been weird, and good judgment has been cast aside for emotional judgment. It isn’t just the team. I was amazed, despite not having watch the Canadiens’ loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, at the amount of criticism directed at Pernell Karl, from both Habs fans and non-Habs fans, on Twitter after the game concluded.

The last thing that Randy Cunneyworth could have done to endear himself to the Montreal faithful in the middle of a losing streak is to do precisely what he did last Thursday. He relegated the polarizing fan favourite to the press box. Subban has also been statistically one of the Canadiens’ better defensemen. He’s been playing tough minutes, through Thursday (the numbers have certainly updated by now) he had a 1.356 Corsi Rel QoC, which measures quality of competition, and had a 45.6% offensive zone start rate. Despite this, his Corsi number (shot attempt differential, excellent for measuring possession) was the best on the Canadiens blueline, and the only one that was positive.

Of course he’d score a goal in his first game back from being a scratch, prompting numerous “I told you sos” everywhere, and of course he’d be an apparent negative factor in the Habs’ subsequent loss, prompting numerous “I also told you sos” on the other side of the coin.

And then there’s this:

It’s not odd in the slightest that Subban would be the target of this type of criticism, because he’s the easy, recognizable target. Is Josh Gorges (minus-2 against Tampa) really not worth bringing up for the sake of a few retweets and a crude diving joke? Did Travis Moen (an astounding minus-3, as if it meant anything, against Tampa) really not play poorly enough to catch Kevin Paul Dupont’s eye?

This hat is #onions.

PK Subban against Tampa Bay was average statistically, but people need to draw away from the fantastic lows and highs that will come with Subban being the most visible player in one of hockey’s most visible market. People forget to pay attention to the two key aspects here: One is that he’s 22 years old. Two, with regards to the previous point, is that PK Subban is on his way to becoming one of the best defensemen in the NHL at controlling the play on both offense and defense.

Yes, like many members of the Montreal Canadiens, he has struggled recently. His fall has been symbolic of the Montreal season, but this is no more attributable to anything specific about PK or the type of player he is. This is just something that happens to young hockey players sometimes, and it would probably happen more often if 22-year old defensemen were playing 22 minutes every night. This is what makes Cunneyworth’s decision to sit him so interesting. It may be the best thing for the young player’s development, if there were key discipline issues in play (I’m not close to the team, but I get to go see them this week) but it certainly isn’t good for the team:

Because at least when Jacques Martin sat Subban, he wasn’t doing so with Subban as arguably the best defenseman on the team. The situation has changed. The team is in the middle of a playoff race and they simply can’t afford to teach their players lessons in discipline as that 8th seed drifts further away, and come back the next night and put the kid’s face right up against the grindstone again.

Just let him play, and if it’s a concern, don’t make him play 8 shifts at even strength against the NHL’s goal scoring leader. You aren’t doing him or yourself any favours. If he’s struggling, take away two or three of his minutes, not twenty-two. There is no need for PK Subban to be forced to jump into the shark-filled waters with his coach nursing an open wound.