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.

Comments (10)

  1. An exercise on capgeek would reveal that the Canadiens have SOOO much capspace in two years, assuming, say, a $68 000 000 cap, which might be a low assumption. This is true even after assigning generous hypothetical contracts to the then-free-agents and also calling up a couple players (Tinordi, Leblanc). If the following contracts were awarded, the Habs would still have 11 million in cap space: Subban 6.5mill, Emelin 3.5mill, Diaz 2.5mill, Eller 3mill. Hardly something to worry about. They’ll need to sign a top six winger, unless Gallagher or Kristo steps up into that role, in which case they need a bottom-sixer. Anyway, 11 million is plenty.

    Plus, Subban’s 2.875 hit next year allows for a decent free agent signing with the 5ish million they have (e.g. Clowe). With that kind of signing, and if Galchenyuk semi-breaks out some time next year, it could be worth going for it if you’re the Habs.

    Hard to see how this is bad.

    • Forgot Desharnais, but I would be extremely surprised if both he and Eller are on the same team for long anyway. If they are, it’s because one successfully converted to the wing, in which case, there would be plenty of cap room and the Habs would no longer need to sign another top-six player, though they’d have the space to do so anyway.

    • Last self-indulgent qualification: I even assumed a 5.75mill Markov on that picture. TONNES of cap space.

  2. I think Bergevin did exactly what he needed when it comes to PK. Think about it when does the team have control over contracts? When they are RFA’s. When PK’s deal expires he’ll still be a RFA, in which time Bergevin if he wants can then sign PK to a 8 year max deal which would then mean we have PK for 10 years and not just the 5 years he was looking for.

    Bergevin is doing it the right way and not throwing money to guys who have played 2 -3 years. Mtl has a structure in place when it comes to “bridge” contracts and they need to stick to it and not make any exceptions. Teams only have control and can limit the earning when they come out of their Entry Level so why not take advantage of that opporitunity, that’s why the CBA put those stipulations in play. Yet we have teams who are throwing money around and then crying poor.

    • I agree with you to a certain extent – but you said it yourself : “Teams only have control and can limit the earning when they come out of their Entry Level”. They could have locked him up using this control for 6-8 years. Now they’ll have him cheap for 2, and pay a premium price for years 4-6.

      Its not a bad thing to have him signed cheap this year and next. But it could have been a lot cheaper in the long run to lock him up.

  3. I’m of the mind that PK needs Montreal more than Montreal needs PK.

    Given PK’s desire and flare for the spotlight, Montreal is the perfect place for him to “build his brand” and profit from endorsements.

    The gist of their conversation:

    Bergevin to Subban: Oh, you don’t want to sign this deal? OK, Columbus has some nice young pieces that we could market. Do you want to mire in obscurity or do you want to play for the most storied franchise in the league?

    PK will make his money, but at this point it won’t be paid in hockey dollars. It will come from endorsements, which will be increased by his presence in such a major market.

  4. I agree with you Cam. The Habs missed an opportunity to lock up a player at a reasonable rate for a long time. The deal they got is so good for the team that it mitigates some of the danger that they could be in in 2014 and 2015. Its in no way a bad thing for the team to have him signed cheap – but if he has a good offensive season this year and continues his strong play otherwise, the Habs will be paying premium price for him when they should still be getting a discount. People really need to start taking notice of the advanced metrics in the game. You don’t need to be a stats person – but if you want to know as yyou noted above why Del Zotto is a silly comparison, you need to look at other numbers than points. Context matters in hockey.

  5. @Rory……if you google NHL players and endorsements you will see that less then 5 players in the league actually make good money from endorsements

    • If we’re referring to the same Forbes article with a small sample size, yes, that is one interpretation.

      Another is: Out of the top 15 paid NHL players, 1/3 make a significant amount of their income from endorsements. Not quite as conclusive.

  6. Since when did PK become this “Elite NHL defenseman” that deserves to be the highest paid defenseman???

    Must’ve missed that section when it came to Norris Votes..

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