Even now, nearly three weeks later, the trade that saw P.K. Subban move to Nashville for Shea Webber has fans of the Montreal Canadiens perplexed, angry, and depressed.
From a hockey perspective, Subban is four years younger than Webber, who some have said is already showing signs of decline. He is, according to advanced analytics, better now, and he will be better than him in the future.
From a cultural and business point of view, the trade is even more confusing; Subban was a much loved figure in Montreal, both for his on-ice prowess and his off-ice generosity. He was, after all, known for turning up unannounced at the city’s children’s hospital, an institution he donated $10 million to.
So why did the Montreal Canadiens trade away a talented, extremely popular superstar in his prime?
It may be down to “hiring for fit” going wrong.
The trouble with culture
Proponents of hiring for fit will often say that hiring someone for the way they fit into the culture is just as important as their individual skills. These people “click” with their co-workers, making the workplace friendlier and more harmonious, and turning them into better, more engaged company ambassadors who are less likely to leave.
But does that limit the potential for bringing in a superstar? And more importantly, what if the dominant culture is need of an update?
As Jonathan Montpetit from the CBC recently wrote, there is a demographic shift occurring in Canada’s national sporting obsession, and “in hockey’s culture wars, Subban represents team progress…his style of play is so out of step with what’s been prized in the so-called dead-puck era. Subban plays the game with creativity. Along with the likes of Erik Karlsson, he has helped redefine the traditional role of the NHL defenceman.”
The Canadiens, and in particular coach Michel Therrien, have a much more conservative approach to team building and systems, eschewing individual creativity for defense; flashes of brilliance for consistency. In that regard, the Subban for Webber trade makes sense. But it does paint the organization as being desperately out of step with the times.
Differing views move things forward
If some reports are to be believed, Subban’s big personality was too large for the Canadiens’ dressing room, causing clashes with other teammates and even his head coach, who famously threw his star defensemen under the bus for a turnover that led to a loss. “It was a selfish play that cost us the game,” Therrien said at the time. “The team worked hard. We deserved a better result. It’s too bad an individual mistake cost us the game late in the game.”
If all this was true, the Canadiens had a choice: either build around Subban as he enters the prime of his career, bringing in teammates and a coach that fit his style and personality, or latch onto the existing group and send him packing. They chose the latter, signaling that they’d rather have a group that “fit” together, than a superstar that didn’t play or act like everyone else.
While there are benefits to building a tension-free group with good chemistry, you often need a differing view to move things forward. Without them, you run the risk of creating homogeneous groups and “personality silos,” where new ideas can be stifled. A group of similar, like-minded individuals might look good on an excel sheet, and it may even improve overall efficiency and employee satisfaction, but what will it do for long-term creativity and innovation? Who will lead the company forward?
When it comes to the Montreal Canadiens, there’s no doubt they are a more entertaining team to watch with the dynamic play of P.K. Subban. But now that they’ve brought in the less flashy, risk averse Shea Webber – a player that seems to share the same temperament as stars Max Pacioretty and Carey Price – are they going to be better? Some will argue that they are, at least in the short-term, but what about long term? What happens down the road when it’s late in a game and the Canadiens need something extra? A flash of unexpected flash of individual brilliance that breaks from the mold?
They may find that playing it safe is sometimes riskier than it seems.