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Mashing the monster

by Dan Marrazza / Vancouver Canucks
Whenever Jordan Subban takes the ice for the Utica Comets, he wears something on his back.

It’s kind of hard to see. If you stare at him real close and concentrate, concentrate and concentrate even harder, you still won’t be able to find it.

But it’s there.

Even though it’s invisible, it’s always there. Every shift of every game, every drill in every practice.

Nestled above the No. 7 on the back of his sweater, below his famous surname. Underneath his equipment.

Right there.

Big, scary and relentless, the monster on Jordan Subban’s back is the massive burden of being P.K. Subban’s little brother.

“I can’t run from that,” Subban recently told Canucks.com. “He’s my brother. As long as I play, he’s going to be my brother. I try not to think about it and just do me. Do my own thing out there.”

Right now, Subban’s ‘own thing’ entails working his way towards the NHL, where he hopes to distinguish himself as more than just P.K.’s younger brother. In his first professional season with the Canucks’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, this centres on channeling his boundless energy towards productive aggressive actions rather than counterproductive aggressive mistakes.

Being aggressive, but not too aggressive. It’s a perpetual tug of war.

If the 20-year-old defenceman suppresses the aggressive nature of how he’s always played, he’ll no longer be effective. At the same time, he has to harness his enthusiasm and eagerness to drive the play in his team’s favour, rather than take unnecessary gambles that lead him out of position.

Kind of like P.K. was at the same age, before developing into one of the faces of the NHL and a Norris Trophy-winner with the Montreal Canadiens.

“We don’t want to take away what a player’s strength is,” Comets coach Travis Green said. “We want him to be that offensive defenceman. But there’s a time and a place. With Subby, a lot of it is concentrating on the details of the game.

“He’s working on the simple little play where he’s got to bank it off the wall to get it out of his zone. Or bank it hard enough to get it inside their zone, instead of a soft play where the puck comes back at you.

“Little areas that he’s maybe never had to worry about before.”

With Subban, this is always a challenge. The reason he was deemed promising enough for the Canucks to select in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft was because he possesses rare attributes that are impossible to teach, that are the prototype for what it takes to be a successful puck-moving defenceman in today’s NHL.

On the flipside, the reason a defenceman who scored 15 goals in his draft year was still available in the fourth round was because he had a tendency to make that one major defensive mistake that wound up in the back of his team’s net.

That and the fact that he’s only 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Measuring three inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than his oldest brother, it always makes Jordan’s margin for error that much smaller than even an average-sized NHL defenceman.

“His development might be a little different than some other guys, because of his size,” Green said. “That’s all right. Everyone has to work on certain things, but he knows the things he has to work on.

“He’s going to have to learn how to defend, being a smaller guy.”

“I know I’m not going to be able to outmuscle a lot of guys here,” Subban added. “If I have a good stick and use my feet well, be in good position, I can be effective.

“We’re working on the simple things. Having your positioning and staying between the puck and the net. Not letting guys behind you. Things like that.”

The positive for the Canucks is that this is ‘all’ it seems like he has to learn. On the offensive side, his game already appears to be almost NHL ready.

After breaking an OHL Belleville Bulls franchise record with 25 goals in his final season in major junior in 2014-15, Subban has five goals and 12 assists in his first 26 pro games. If he maintained this pace, he’d produce 16 goals in a full-length, 76-game AHL season. This would equal or be more than any Canucks AHL defenceman would have scored in a season since 1999-00, when then-veteran career minor-leaguer Chris O’Sullivan scored 18 as a member of the Syracuse Crunch.

The difference is Subban’s a rookie, putting up numbers like this at a stage where most defencemen his age are still tentative with the puck, afraid to make mistakes.

Subban, to his credit, is not afraid.

Even when there’s a big, scary monster on his back.

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