BROSSARD, Que. – It wasn’t exactly smiles and high fives in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room on Tuesday over the news that P.K. Subban’s contract dispute had finally ended.
In fact, the mood was surprisingly chilly on a team that started the lockout-delayed NHL regular season 3-1-0 without the flashy player who was their top defenceman last season.
Subban signed a two-year US$5.75 million contract Monday night and will rejoin the club Wednesday in Ottawa, although when he will play his first game has yet to be determined.
Veteran rearguard Andrei Markov refused to talk about it, saying “He’s not in the room yet, so let’s talk about it when he’s going to be in the room.”
And Josh Gorges, Subban’s regular defence partner, steered around questions on how he felt.
“To be honest, I’m glad that we don’t have to talk about it any more,” said Gorges. “It’s a non-issue now and we can focus on getting ready to play the games without anything else to think about.”
Asked if he was glad to have Subban back, Gorges said: “Like I said, it’s good that it’s over and done with and it’s settled. We don’t have to have these talks in the morning of what-if-this and what-if-that. It’s over. We can focus on playing hockey.”
Often, when a player signs a contract, there are a flood of congratulatory tweets from teammates, but this time, there were only a couple from players who were not on the team last season.
After inking his deal, the 23-year-old Subban he couldn’t wait to “reintegrate” with the team.
But it appears he has some work to do with his teammates, even if general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien said they were delighted to have the talented rearguard back in the fold.
Years ago it was common to have players miss training camps and even parts of a season while negotiating contracts, but there have been few since the last collective bargaining agreement following the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Now that teams are adjusting to a salary cap that will shrink next season, there were several. Ryan O’Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche is still not signed.
“Obviously, this is an unusual circumstance for us to be in,” said Gorges, when asked how quickly Subban will adjust. “I’ve never had to deal with a holdout situation, a guy coming in late, so we’ll take it in stride.”
Subban is a gifted player, but teammates roll their eyes sometimes when he draws a crowd of media to his stall and puts on a show. He likes to talk, is often funny and adores the cameras. During the lockout, he acted as a hockey analyst on one TV station and as weatherman one time on another.
He has had a few run-ins with teammates during practices, including a fight once with centre Tomas Plekanec.
Still, he is one of the team’s most popular players with fans.
He also got the job done on the ice. Last season, he led the club in average ice time per game at more than 24 minutes. He played with Gorges against opponents’ top lines and had seven goals and 29 assists.
“It’s excellent news for our organization, we’re very happy to finally get him back,” said Therrien, who returned to Montreal for a second stint as head coach this season.
When Subban will be back on the ice is another question.
Therrien and Bergevin are to meet with him Wednesday in Ottawa to assess his physical condition and bring him up to speed on the coaches’ new system. He’s unlikely to play in Ottawa, but should get a practice in before afternoon games on the weekend against Buffalo and the Senators.
Therrien would not say how Subban will be used or how much he will play until he has met him and seen him skate. But he said it was key for any new player coming in to buy into the team’s system.
One issue is the power play, where Subban normally plays on the first unit. It has been in the top-5 in the league so far with Markov and Rafael Diaz manning the points.
“I want to keep playing my game and give everything so that we win the game,” said Diaz. “At the end, it’s the coach’s decision.”
Subban’s return should take pressure off defencemen like Alexei Emelin and Francis Bouillon who have been logging a lot of minutes. And he gives them a blue-liner who can rush the puck out of his zone and up the ice.
“A player of P.K.’s calibre is always welcome in the lineup,” said forward Lars Eller. “He’s playing a lot of minutes so he’s going to be important to us. I’m sure he’ll make the team better.”