BROSSARD, Que. – Forget the language controversy, P.K. Subban says being made a healthy scratch as the Montreal Canadiens lost a fifth game in a row was the real humiliation.
The next test will be to see how the second-year defenceman reacts to being sat down by embattled interim coach Randy Cunneyworth.
“You don’t want to be a healthy scratch and when you are it’s embarrassing,” Subban said Monday. “You’re walking through the airport going home and you don’t even want to look at anybody, because people put so much hope in you as playing and helping the team.
“You want to help the team. And when they don’t think you can do the job, it’s embarrassing. It’s not fun. But it’s not my decision on whether I play or not, so when I get the opportunity I just show up.”
Cunneyworth made his first bold move since he replaced Jacques Martin last week when he scratched Subban and centre Lars Eller for a game Thursday night in Winnipeg.
The team responded with a feeble 4-0 loss, leaving Cunneyworth 0-4-0 as an NHL head coach amid a swirling controversy over his getting the job despite not being able to speak French, the language of most of the team’s fans.
Media attention has since shifted away from Cunneyworth, who ended his daily media briefing with a “merci beaucoup” and a smile, to some intense criticism of general manager Pierre Gauthier, who named him the club’s first unilingual English-speaking head coach since 1970-71, likely knowing the reaction it would provoke in Quebec.
Now, it appears the new coach and the fans on both sides of the debate just want to see the losing end.
“I’m trying not to worry about those things,” Cunneyworth said. “This isn’t all about me.
“It’s about getting our team going in the right direction. You have to take that first step and if we can do that, obviously the confidence grows. But it’s a big first step.”
All signs at the club’s first post-Christmas break practice suggested both Subban and Eller will not only be back, but will be playing in key positions when the Canadiens face the Senators in Ottawa on Tuesday night.
Major line shuffling put Eller onto the top unit between Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty, while Subban was back on the point for the power play.
Subban had been minus-4 and took the blame upon himself for losses in Boston and Chicago after careless giveaways on key goals in each game, but even he didn’t see himself sitting out.
The flashy defenceman is the team’s leader in average ice time per game (23:59), while playing on the top defence pair with Josh Gorges and seeing time on both the power play and penalty killing units.
But Cunneyworth felt a message to needed to be sent.
“For me, it’s about team accountability and playing the way we want to play,” he said. “Nobody is excluded from that.
“I like the fact that P.K. was very open about his own play and very critical, probably more critical than myself, but nonetheless we’re looking for a certain type of team play out of each individual and we’re going to continue to demand that.”
Subban was still upset, but said it wasn’t anger that he felt.
“I don’t ever want to be a healthy scratch again,” he said. “I shouldn’t be.
“When it happens it’s embarrassing. There’s no other word. I’m not angry, not sad, not mad at myself. It’s just embarrassing.”
Last season, he was scratched by Martin and bounced back with a strong second half of the season en route to a 14-goal rookie season.
But Subban said being sat out had nothing to do with playing better, and that he simply benefitted as the entire team picked up its game.
He also said he hadn’t discussed the move with Cunneyworth, although the new coach said it should not have been a surprise.
“It’s been spoken, very clearly actually,” he said. “All our players are very aware of how we want them to play and the roles and responsibilities that are given to them.”
It was only the second practice Cunneyworth has had with the team since he took over, as there were games on three of his first four days, followed by the break. There hasn’t been much chance to make important changes. But he clearly did not spend the short holiday idly.
As well as moving Eller to a new line he put David Desharnais between Michael Cammalleri and Louis Leblanc, he had top centre Tomas Plekanec between Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen.
The power play was also tweaked, including one unit that used centre Desharnais on left wing
“You have to make some changes, try some things,” he said. “You can get stale playing with the same people too long and what we’re looking for is just a little invigoration of our group.
“We have to have everyone thinking and realizing they can do some things with other linemates.”
Carey Price will start in goal against Ottawa.
Cunneyworth said none of the four injured Canadiens would make the trip that will also take them to Tampa Bay on Thursday and Florida on Saturday. Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Ryan White skated after the main practice and their condition will be evaluated later in the week. Defenceman Andrei Markov is still not skating.
Following the lead of some rival teams, the Canadiens wore an ad (for a chain of sandwich shops) on their practice jerseys for the first time.