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VOL. 42 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 9, 2018

Subban having best year of a great career

By John Glennon

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Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, right, hit his stride last year when paired with with Mattias Ekholm, left. Subban has had great success this season playing largely with Alexei Emelin, but coach Peter Laviolette last week decided to go back to the Subban-Ekholm combination.

-- File | Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

In eight previous NHL seasons, Predators defenseman P.K. Subban has already earned the league’s best defenseman award, twice been named a first-team all-star and helped guide his teams into three conference championships.

So, to suggest the 28-year-old blueliner is having the best season of his career is no small statement.

But one could make a strong case that Subban is producing on both ends of the ice like never before, a huge reason the Predators are on pace to threaten the franchise record for points.

The jump in Subban’s contributions from a year ago not only has him in the discussion for another Norris Trophy, but it’s also evidence his career is still on the upswing. That further validates the blockbuster trade the Preds made before the start of last season when they acquired Subban from Montreal in exchange for the now 32-year-old Shea Weber.

“It seems like he’s definitely stepped it up even another notch this year,” Predators captain Roman Josi says. “He’s really been playing well, and it’s not just his offensive numbers either, because he’s really playing well in the defensive zone, too. He makes great reads and he has great first passes out of the zone.”

Subban and the Predators weren’t necessarily an instant fit during that first season.

Hampered by a training-camp injury, Subban got off to a slow start, posting a minus-seven rating through his first eight games. The Preds struggled at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, as well, winning just three of their first 11 contests.

But Subban’s play improved markedly as the season progressed due to better health and in a change of defensive partners – from Roman Josi to Mattias Ekholm – that seemed to be just the right fit.

Subban was operating at full speed by the time the playoffs arrived in 2017. He was contributing with his offense – 12 points in 22 playoff games – and by serving as half of the team’s shutdown defensive pairing.

“I think obviously the playoffs last year helped him a lot, just to get him back to where he was even before he came here,” Predators forward Filip Forsberg says. “I think he was unbelievable in the playoffs and I think he’s been keeping that up this year. He’s playing more confident and just stronger.”

The numbers confirm that theory.

Through 50 games, Subban’s 40 points topped the Predators, making him one of just three defensemen to either lead or share the team lead in that category.

His 13 goals had already exceeded last year’s total of 10, and Subban is on pace to record the first 20-goal season of his career. After producing 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) in a 21-game stretch, Subban is on pace to produce 66 points this season, which would snap his previous mark of 60 set in 2014-15.

“I think just being healthy and the way our team has played this year obviously makes it really easy for everyone to come in and get a good rhythm,” Subban says. “I feel like that’s where we’re at. Everyone is in a good rhythm. Everyone feels confident in their game.”

Subban’s big numbers have come despite spending much of this season paired with Alexei Emelin instead of Ekholm.

But Predators coach Peter Laviolette last week re-united Subban with Ekholm, which should only bolster Subban’s game.

The only potential critique on Subban this year is that his Corsi rating – a measure of a team’s offensive puck possession while a certain player is on the ice – was 50.8 through 50 games, a drop from last year’s season-ending figure of 54.4.

But there’s a likely explanation for that.

Subban has been relied on for defense this season more than ever in the past, evidenced by the fact he’s started 59 percent of his possessions in the defensive zone. That’s a full seven points more than his career average, and it shows how highly the Predators think of Subban’s ability to shut down the opposition’s most productive scorers.

“I’ve always been a player that’s taken pride in my defense,” Subban says. “You don’t get to this point in a career without playing solid defense. I’ve been to couple conference finals and a Cup Final. In all those years, I was in a key defensive role.”

What’s to account for Subban playing even better this year than last?

One reason is that the Sudbury, Ontario, native is more established in his surroundings this season, following a year that saw him uprooted from Montreal after playing seven seasons in his native Canada.

“Yeah, I’m more comfortable,” Subban says. “I’ve bought a place here now and settled in. So that helps, too. But I don’t think that affected me too much last year.”

Says Josi: “I think no matter where you go, it always takes a little bit of time to make it feel like home. That second year when you come back, you know a lot more people outside of hockey and in your community.”

There’s also more familiarity on the ice now for Subban, as he’s well into his second season alongside his Predators teammates and in Laviolette’s up-tempo system.

In general, the less a player has to think about what he’s doing on the ice, the faster and better he plays.

“For sure, the longer you’re here, the more you get to know players’ tendencies and how things work, what your role is and how you fit in with the team,” Subban says. “Last year, you don’t know if things are going to change or what’s going to happen and what they expect from me. So, it’s made things a lot easier now.”

Which is why we might be seeing the best Subban yet.

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.