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P.K. Subban Takes Aim

After a shocking trade from Montreal, the defenseman has returned to form in Nashville — and flexed his way to early postseason glory

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

As P.K. Subban spoke with a media scrum following Wednesday night’s game between his Nashville Predators and the St. Louis Blues, the defenseman wore a giant chain around his neck and a T-shirt bearing his own likeness. Awarding the chain — a rotating player-of-the-game honor, which Predators captain Mike Fisher once described as going to the guy whose effort best resembles that of a “dog on a bone” — to Subban was a no-brainer: That night, on the road in Game 1 of the second round of the playoffs, Subban scored a goal, assisted on two others, and drew a key penalty in a 4–3 Nashville win.

“I started my career in the playoffs,” Subban reminded reporters. (As a Montreal Canadiens rookie in 2010 with only two NHL games under his belt, Subban earned some ice time in the postseason and wound up scoring eight points in 14 playoff games.) “Whenever I get back here, I get a certain feeling that makes the game fun. It makes me want to elevate my game. It’s not an easy thing to do. But let’s face it — no need to sugarcoat it — that’s why they pay me.”

He was blunt, and he was right, as is so often the case. This was the kind of game that the Nashville Predators must have envisioned when they traded for the 27-year-old Subban last summer, a move that required dealing their concrete cornerstone of a franchise defenseman, Shea Weber, to Montreal for the younger, livelier, higher-risk-higher-reward Subban. “Subban is more dynamic, with his skating and speed,” longtime Predators general manager David Poile told reporters this past January. “That’s a key ingredient in today’s game. Shea doesn’t rush the puck a lot, P.K. does.”

Weber probably never wore shirts featuring his own silhouette, either. Just under Subban’s neckline on Wednesday, in Predators yellow, was a hockey player bent down on one knee like Usain Bolt, leaning back with a hockey stick aimed aloft. (When Subban paused between questions to wipe sweat off his chin with his collar, the tiny guy moved across his face like a little window washer bearing a squeegee.) The logo was fitting — Subban had struck the pose IRL several times on the ice earlier that night, each one another exuberant reminder of both his hockey skill and his unmistakeable zeal.

In the first period of Game 1 against St. Louis, after Subban took a one-timer slap shot from the point, it was easy to see why the Sportsnet TV crew thought he had scored his first Predators playoff goal. Subban celebrated in wild style before pointing appreciatively across the ice at Colin Wilson, who had actually been the one to tip in Subban’s booming shot. In the second period, on a similar shot from the other side of the ice, Subban beat Blues goalie Jake Allen for his actual first playoff goal as a Predator, and he got back into the bow-and-arrow pose again.

“Last night we had the opportunity to move the puck around,” Subban tells me the next day, speaking briefly by phone from St. Louis in between Games 1 and 2, interrupted every now and again by elevator doors closing, questions from passing Predators about team meeting times, and what sounds like lunch eaten on the go. Subban took five shots on goal in Game 1, and with his big, arcing attempts from out deep — several of them the result of tic-tac-toe Predators passing — he often resembled an NBA sharpshooter heat-checking on ice. “Not every game is like that,” he says. “You have to go into a game thinking sometimes you may only get one or two shots on net, not five or six. It’s definitely more fun playing that way, when you’re just a shooting clinic.”

His game lately has mirrored the general play of the Predators, a team that has found a new level of play this postseason. In the first round — against top-seeded Chicago, the closest thing the Predators have to a rival, as Subban said on the Bill Simmons Podcast in early March — Nashville swept the Blackhawks. In Game 1 against the big, bruising Blues, the Predators got out to a 3–1 lead, didn’t melt down even when the Blues tied it, and finished with a big road victory. “Winning the first five games of the postseason has not been easy by any means,” Subban says.

As Game 1 went on, each of Subban’s celebrations grew sloppier than the last. Midway through the second period, when he once again took a long shot that turned into an assist when Filip Forsberg buried it at close range, the precision of Subban’s post-goal archery deteriorated completely. Not even bothering with the bow and arrow, he dropped to a knee on the ice and pumped a fist over his head, looking like a guy dominating a dance floor at a wedding. If you were racking up points and a fifth straight playoff win, wouldn’t you act that way, too?

One of the most irritating things in sports (out of a lot of contenders) is the obsessive fixation that so many onlookers have regarding how an athlete should live. It’s not enough for one’s favorite ballplayer to be an elite specimen who never loses a step despite always throwing his or her body around, or to have a crazy resting heart rate, or to have great aim. They should also be sure to Respect the Game; be “a class act” and spend their days (and nights and offseasons and back-to-backs) striving to literally kiss the ring.

But as just about anyone who has ever so much as swung at a tee-ball knows, the best, coolest, always-picked-first athletes in the world are often the same ones who are kinda jerks, or weirdo savants, or happy-go-lucky natural talents marching to their own beat whose indifference to the rules only makes them that much infuriatingly better. Subban is not really any one of these things — though in a way, he is all of them. He’s a smirking-ass jock who talks surprisingly nasally yet often effective trash, like some king of the dweebs; he opines about league revenues with the same enlightened, enthusiastic tone that he uses to discuss defensive pairings; he’s unapologetically himself. He explained to Sports Illustrated before the season that “I have a creative mind […] if I feel that putting a two-and-a-half foot saucer pass over some guy’s stick or three people [will help] us to have a scoring chance, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Within the Montreal Canadiens, a franchise that is so obsessed with past glories and decorum and tradition that you can start to see why it is often compared with a religion, this sort of freewheeling attitude was not always encouraged. It wasn’t that Subban didn’t respect his team, it was that he didn’t necessarily equate respect with random kowtowing. Early in Subban’s career, after wins, he and young goalie Carey Price used to meet on the ice for an effusive succession of low-fives. The Canadiens told them to knock it off. He was called out publicly by his coach for mistakes in a way that seemed pointed and passive-aggressive. It went both ways, though; some teammates bristled at the blasé attitude that Subban could sometimes adopt.

In 2013, after Subban finished his three-year, entry-level deal and became a restricted free agent, he got involved in a small but significant war of attrition during negotiations with his team. “We’re not trying to rob the bank here,” Subban told the Montreal Gazette that January, in the midst of a two-week holdout. “We’re not reinventing anything. We’re not holding a gun to the Canadiens’ head saying, ‘Pay us this or we’re walking away.’ We just want to be compensated for what I’m worth.”

The two sides ended up settling on a two-year bridge contract worth $5.75 million the following week, angering fans who wanted Subban locked in long term. A year and a half later, Montreal finally did just that, inking him to an eight-year, $72 million contract. And two years into that deal, a few days before his no-trade clause was set to kick in, Subban was traded to Nashville.

“When you’re drafted to a team,” says Subban, “You want to play your whole career there. You want to make it work.” And he had made it work in Montreal: Subban’s Habs made it to the conference final twice during his time there. He had boundless energy and was up for whatever: trying his hand at doing the local weather or dressing up gleefully like a security guard to surprise kids. He was an All-Star who pledged $10 million to the Montreal Children’s Hospital in the fall of 2015 and continues to visit.

“But that said, you don’t want to play somewhere where you’re not needed and wanted,” says Subban. “The team wanted to go in a different direction. And even though I loved playing there, and I loved the city, and I wanted to win a championship there, I was forced to kind of move on. And now everything has been great to me, so I can’t complain.”

Many Canadiens fans, though, do still complain; when Subban and the Predators visited Montreal this season, he was moved to tears by the sincerity of the we-miss-you-P.K. reaction. “Especially in Montreal,” he says, “there aren’t many players who leave and get that kind of respect and response when they come back.”

Weber is a perennial All-Star player, a good soldier, and has long been one of the top handful of blue liners in the league, but he’s also 31 years old, which isn’t old-old but also isn’t spritely in dog-fenseman years. And Weber’s current contract lasts for double the length of Subban’s: The Habs essentially exchanged Subban’s prime for Weber’s 30s, as Sportsnet’s Jonathan Willis pointed out. A herniated-disc injury sidelined Subban for 16 games mid-season, but since returning in mid-January, he has looked more like his old self. And while it’s unfair to judge a trade so soon, it was hard to ignore the Canadiens losing in six games to the Rangers while the Predators swept one of the league’s top teams in the first round.

Subban goes out of his way to make it clear that he loves and misses Montreal, but there are signs that being in Nashville is a pretty great setup for him at this stage in his career. In 2014, in a conversation with Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber, then-Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien said, “I have more meetings with P.K. about teaching the game than [with] a lot of the guys. P.K. needs to be pushed at times. We all know we have a special player. And I have a vision for him.” This describes a relationship markedly different from the one Subban now has with Predators coach Peter Laviolette.

“He’s awesome,” Subban says. “He’s just a really great guy to play for — he’s very demanding, he’s really intense, and he has a lot of energy. And he is so intelligent, just in terms of how he deals with hockey players and people every day. That’s so important in today’s sports world, dealing with different people.”

Asked how Laviolette deals with him, Subban laughs. “We don’t talk too much, I guess,” he says. “When he doesn’t speak to me too much, it’s because I’m doing my job. When he does, it’s usually about doing the little things, maybe something to do with our systems. I try to do my best job to make it easy for him.”

In a league that can feel relentlessly, stiflingly conformist, where it’s all about the buds and the boys and the system and never getting too high or too low, where there’s a thin line between self and selfishness, where natural selection winds up muting plumage instead of the beautiful opposite, Subban is a welcome outlier. On Simmons’s podcast, he called hockey “the ultimate team game,” and he meant it — but he also meant it when, in an old Vice video, he explained matter-of-factly that every professional athlete has, and ought to nurture, a brand. And he remains very on his.

In 2014, before a Game 7 between the Canadiens and Bruins in Boston, Subban told NHL.com that he expected a raucous scene on the road. “It’s going to be great,” he said then. “I can’t wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in the building. I can’t wait to take that all away from them.” (It was a threat similar to one made the next season by another no-effs-to-give NHL star, Alex Ovechkin, who predicted that his Capitals would close down the Islanders’ era of playing at Nassau Coliseum and added, “I’m going to probably take a chair.”) Subban has never been afraid to speak his mind about structural issues and labor disputes and the realities of sports as a business. “I’m always very cautious, because I don’t speak for all of the players,” he says, “but I also give my opinion.”

Rather than be a player who lives the way he is supposed to, Subban lives the way he plays: He seeks out attention rather than shrinking from it; he ruffles feathers and doesn’t mince words; he is self-confident and generous and thankful and boastful. He just seems to get it, even when those around him don’t. He lives and breathes hockey, but when he goes home for the day, he says, he’s more likely to watch baseball. (Shortly after saying so, he showed up at a Toronto Blue Jays game in St. Louis.)

He’s cocky, but he’s not a diva; he doesn’t care about things like whether he and his defensive partner Mattias Ekholm are considered the first or second defensive pairing on the depth chart, or whether the duo of Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi is. “We have a lot of good D, and a lot of good lines,” Subban says. “On any given night, our second line could be our best line, or our first line, or whatever it is. Our first D pairing, quote-unquote, or our second D pairing could lead the way. That’s what we need to be a winning team, and for us we just don’t care.” (That said, after Game 1, when Subban swore that he didn’t need to be the center of attention, Josi heard about it and got a good laugh.)

Subban is a fantastic fit for a market like Nashville, where the in-game experience is boisterous and friendly and loud, and where the growth of the market has been a success story in the NHL’s strategy of spreading franchises across the South. He understands the importance of grassroots involvement in these sorts of communities; he is a reliably excellent spokesman for the league.

But he knows there is more somewhere out there, that his star could be even brighter, that there’s no better marketing strategy than to win. So for now, he keeps taking aim to shoot the lights out, just like the self-portrait on the front of his T-shirt, that mercenary little Orion in his own tiny no. 76 merch.