As the cliche goes, one of the more popular players for a sports fan base is always the backup to the most important of positions.
But you don’t hear much — OK, nothing — about Malcolm Subban as the No. 2 goalkeeper for the Golden Knights.
Part of that is because of who he plays behind and part because I’m not certain anyone really knows what to make, or expect, from Subban on those nights he sees the ice.
It wasn’t often last season, when Subban started 20 games and the Knights again overworked starter Marc-Andre Fleury.
In fact, it hasn’t been much at all during Subban’s professional career.
“I’ve never really been a No. 1 guy,” he said.
He is at the mercy of this truth: Fleury is not only the face of the franchise now but forever will be considered Vegas royalty as the leader of the team that blew off the expansion doors of historical trends when entering the league in 2017.
I’m not saying a statue of Fleury definitely will be erected outside T-Mobile Arena, but don’t be surprised if some sculptor is preparing chiseling tools.
Fleury already is as beloved as most any athlete in Las Vegas history.
It’s different for Subban.
As much as fans spent training camp offering social media opinions about which rookie blue liners should make the NHL roster or if it was finally time for Cody Glass to stick in Las Vegas, a majority also debated who between Garret Sparks and Oscar Dansk had the best chance of unseating Subban for the backup role.
Neither did, and it took just the one-year, $850,000 contract Subban signed in the offseason to understand why.
The Knights have never, at least publicly, hesitated in their support of him.
It’s the public that seems to take issue.
His numbers last season — an 8-10-2 record, 2.93 goals-against average, lost his first five starts and five of his final six — certainly added fuel to a fire set by skeptics.
He was inconsistent, a first-round pick of Boston in 2012 who split time with others in the American Hockey League and has never played more than 35 games in a professional season.
For as little as he plays, he also gets hurt a lot.
A colleague best described Subban this week. If you think of a pitcher, he’s more the guy who on any given night can either throw a no-hitter or get shelled but not the one who will surrender three runs and keep you in a game until the mid-to-late innings.
He can be stellar enough to win free doughnuts for fans and shaky enough to get pulled.
There has been little in between, and yet it’s obvious the Knights believe more in Subban’s long-term upside than a guy who has seen things go really bad really fast.
Playing for him
“I think we all understand that when (Subban) gets in, because (Fleury) gets the majority of starts, you want to help him by communicating loudly,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “Everyone knows how tough it must be not playing a lot. You want to be sharp and maintain, but there can’t be a lot of rhythm when you’re getting games here and there.
“When (Subban) gets in, we all want to play hard for him. I know a lot of times last year we let him down in games. We just didn’t come through on our end, and I know that was a (bleep) feeling for all of us, because when he’s in, we want to be there for him as much as we can.”
Sparks and Dansk cleared waivers and are with Chicago in the AHL, not that many doubted the 25-year-old Subban would again back up the goalie he watched while growing up, the one he studied YouTube and highlight tapes of, the one he marvels at for his fight and competitiveness.
“Sometimes, it’s better to take your time and develop and learn behind someone like him as opposed to getting rushed into something you’re not ready for.” Subban said. “I know that I’m much better now than when I (was drafted). I look back to when I was 19 … It’s not even close.
“I’m dead serious. I’m much more consistent with everything. A lot of things are out of my control as to how much I play, so I only worry about being the best person and player I can possibly be.”
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.