Like at least one other online hockey writer, I didn’t like the process by which the Montreal Canadiens went about signing Pernell Karl Subban through the end of next season. Nothing the Canadiens have done with Subban seem to pay him the respect he deserves as one of the best defencemen in hockey.
While that “one of the best defencemen in hockey” phrase may rile up some people, it’s an unquestionable fact that the Montreal Canadiens are a much better team with Subban on the ice than off of it, and Subban has the ability to do that despite playing tough minutes. He’s flashy and offensive and makes it onto the highlight-reel and is polarizing, but the best hockey players are the ones who also make the invisible plays that leads to the puck spending more time in the opposition’s zone, and by proxy, the opposition’s net.
And I never felt like Montreal really believed what they had here. The comparison to Michael del Zotto, as Adam Gretz so eloquently pointed out over at CBS Eye on Hockey, is laughable. There’s a problem with perception here, that Montreal hasn’t wanted to commit to arguably their best skater after giving term to players like Carey Price, Max Pacioretty and, via UFA, Brandon Prust.
Subban was signed to a two-year deal worth $5.75-million this week, although the $3.75-million in the second season affects Subban’s qualifying offer and, in the pro-rated 2013 season, means that he’ll get more money than if he just split the dollar amount down the middle of the contract. In the short-term, this is an excellent deal for both sides. The Canadiens get an elite defenceman for pennies on the dollar and Subban plays a season and a half for a few million bucks before hitting the jackpot come his next deal, when he’ll have arbitration rights and the Canadiens will most certainly have to buy out some of his unrestricted free agent years.
Which is why I was skeptical about the deal at first, but now I’m not really sure. In my world, I would much rather have P.K. Subban for four or five years rather than one and a half, and given the press given to this one particular holdout and the fan demand to see P.K. back in the lineup, it’s not an exercise Marc Bergevin wants to go through the next time around. That said though, it’s clear where Bergevin stands on a players’ second contract—it’s a bridge contract, not the payday contract. It sets a poor precedent for the next guy, whether it’s Alex Galchenyuk or Brendan Gallagher or Nathan Beaulieu. Rather than a two-year cheap bridge deal, the prospective players are going to know that there’s some variant on a long-term deal that they could potentially hold out for. The organization needs to set limits on escalating player salaries.
That said, where do the Canadiens benefit from these two value years on Subban’s deal? Even the most ardent P.K. Subban “haterz” would admit that the Canadiens are getting a steal in Year Two of the deal. With just a $2.875-million salary cap hit, P.K. provides some of the best value in the league, helping the Canadiens transition their roster under the cap. After buying out Scott Gomez and presumably Tomas Kaberle this summer as well, that leaves the club about $12-million below the cap to sign about six players, including a deal for David Desharnais, which could get expensive real quick depending on Desharnais’ negotiation strategy. It will give Montreal room.
The trouble is in Year Three. Brian Gionta could be gone. Erik Cole will be 36, the team will have had to shell out money for Lars Eller and practically their entire defensive corps including P.K. Subban. Only Josh Gorges is signed past next season. That’s the transition year to a new corps, to a team that’s built around Subban, Price, Pacioretty, Galchenyuk, Gorges and Eller. It’s a good group of young players who can make a contribution, plus the additions via trades and free agency, presuming Marc Bergevin learned a lot from Stan Bowman in Chicago in how to find good players on the market.
That’s where it strikes me as odd that Bergevin didn’t want to give Subban term in exchange for salary cap dollars, eat the second contract and make it easier for himself in the summer of 2014 to find talent to surround that core group of players.
Then I slept on it, and thought, “well, why would he do that?”
For a guy who complains an awful lot about teams who tank to get better draft picks, only to see those picks becoming no better than the players given up by the team when they started to tank, I’m not so sure why I was bothered by Bergevin’s desire to go for it this season. There are some good players on the Canadiens, and the team was nowhere near as bad last year as their record indicated. They lost a disproportionately high number of close games, had some key injuries, had some awful coaching, and until about halfway through the season were a good possession club.
Are they as good this year as their start? Well, no. Going into their game against Ottawa, the Habs had the third highest team PDO in the league, and the members of the Gallagher, Galchenyuk and Prust line all have high individual totals. This illusory strong start is why some people have speculated that Subban ran out of leverage when he wanted to sign a deal: the Habs were winning and no other team seemed willing to give Subban an offer sheet worth signing.
But then I slept on it again, and I thought “am I really rationalizing the decisions of a man who thought Brandon Prust was worth giving a four-year contract to?” Unless you think that this Montreal team is good enough to win a Stanley Cup this year or next, you have to think that Bergevin ought to have given him term, right? Kudos to the man for sticking to his guns and showing confidence in his current group, but it’s one heckuva gamble.