When the Montreal Canadiens lost defenseman Alexei Emelin to an injury in the first period of Wednesday night's game against Ottawa, the pressure on the team's defense corps ratcheted up significantly. There was no immediate word on the severity of Emelin's upper-body ailment, but in the immediate wake of losing the veteran and the 20 minutes he averages per game, head coach Michel Therrien leaned on a blueliner he's been leaning on more of late: star P.K. Subban was on his way to playing more than 30 minutes for the third time in five games when he was forced out of the game late in the second period after blocking a shot. Subban returned to start the third and still finished the night with 30:45 of playing time, but it very easily could've been a higher number than that.
The Canadiens are already rumored to be seeking a defenseman on the trade market, and the injury scares to two of their veterans should be considered a warning shot across the bow to accelerate the process. Because while the 25-year-old Subban is clearly capable of being on the ice for more than half of every game, Therrien and GM Marc Bergevin must be delicate with his minutes. Just as an NHL GM must balance the needs of the now with the needs of tomorrow on the salary cap front, so too must he keep an eye on the big picture when it comes to the use of his star players. And because Subban is one of the NHL's most marketable, personable and talented players, Bergevin needs to be aware of the demands that are going to be placed on him not only this year, but beyond.
To wit: if all goes well with young stars such as Subban, Carey Price and Max Pacioretty, Montreal will be playing a heck of a lot of playoff hockey in the immediate years to come. In addition, Subban will be a part of Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and if the NHL participates in the 2018 Olympics, he'll be representing his country in that tournament as well. That's a whole lot of wear-and-tear on a player who doesn't shy away from physicality or the hard-to-reach areas of the ice.
Again, if anyone can handle that in the short-term, it's Subban. He's been remarkably durable, playing at least 77 games in each of his first three full NHL seasons (and he only missed six games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign because of a contract dispute). But hockey injuries have a funny way of piling up at the end of a player's career and shortening it to the regret of the player and his fans. The longer you keep any star out there, the more you tempt fate. Hockey is a game where freak accidents occur on the regular, and being judicious in the use of one of your meal ticket's time reduces the likelihood that random chaos steps in and changes your team's outlook forever.
Subban has grown into a game-changer, but his minutes haven't risen with every passing year. Prior to this season, he's hovered around the 23-24-minute mark, but he's already averaging nearly 26 in his first 57 games of 2014-15. To continue pushing the needle on him into March and April would be foolhardy, especially when the market for a defenseman isn't going to cost Bergevin a first-round pick.
Every entertainer needs to figure out and stick to a proper run time to maximize the impact of his routine. Trying to stretch that act out simply because he's incredibly talented very well could dilute its effectiveness – or lead to disaster.