Canadiens Playing A Dangerous Game With Subban

The Montreal Canadiens and P.K. Subban went before an arbiter on August 1. To be honest, I never thought it would go that far.

Subban filed for arbitration last month, but it appeared he and the Canadiens would avoid the process by reaching an 11th-hour agreement on a long-term extension. It didn’t happen and now the hockey world awaits the arbiter’s decision, due no later than 1 pm ET on August 3.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin risks losing P.K. Subban to free agency in two years time.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin risks losing P.K. Subban to free agency in two years time.

Because Subban filed for arbitration, Canadiens management, led by general manager Marc Bergevin, choose a one-year award over a two-year contract.  TSN legal analyst Eric Macramalla believes that was a smart decision, avoiding the prospect of trying to negotiate a new deal with Subban’s eligibility for unrestricted free agency hanging over the negotiations. It could be the only smart move Bergevin and his brain trust made in this process.

Subban was forced to accept a two-year bridge deal worth $2.875 million per season following the last NHL lockout. Coming off a three-year entry-level deal and lacking arbitration rights, he had little choice. This time he was obviously expecting a more lucrative contract.

Entering the latest round of contract talks,  Subban carried some worthwhile ammunition. He won the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He finished second in team scoring twice during the regular season, tied for the team playoff scoring lead in 2013 and led the Habs in playoff points (14) during last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Despite the criticism of Subban’s defensive game, during the regular season he was third in hits (135) and fourth in blocked shots (125). In the 2014 playoffs he was fifth in hits (36) and blocked shots (31).

Considering Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, who was runner-up to Subban for the Norris in 2013, earned an eight-year extension worth $7.25 million annually, Subban seemed in line for something of similar term worth between $7.5 – $8.5 million annually.

Subban’s critics will argue there’s no way he’s worth more money per season than Drew Doughty, who’s twice helped the LA Kings win two Stanley Cups in three years. But it’s the nature of the business. Doughty signed his deal three years ago, when his market value and those of comparable defensemen was lower than it is now. If Doughty were eligible for free agency today, he’d undoubtedly earn much more.

Subban’s value may be higher due to timing and a risking salary cap, but there’s no denying his value to the Montreal Canadiens. One would think re-signing him to a long-term extension would be their priority. Instead, Bergevin and company once again elected to play hardball.

Does Bergevin and his staff honestly believe Subban isn’t as valuable as many fans, bloggers and pundits think he is? Given the criticism and benchings Subban received last season under coach Michel Therrien, that seems to be the case, . Yet Therrien was content to turn the superstar blueliner loose during the playoffs, where his dazzling skills and physical style were key elements in the Canadiens advancing to the Eastern Conference Final.

Subban has his weaknesses. He sometimes makes costly mistakes in his own zone and on occasion puts himself out of position to deliver a big hit. Proponents of advanced stats, however, reject the belief  he’s “high-risk, high-reward”, observing he’s among the top-20 players in the league relative to his teammates. Because of Subban’s elevated level of play, it can be argued his mistakes are more magnified than those of a lesser-skilled blueliner.

Is there something going on behind the scenes as to why they were willing to go to arbitration with Subban? Given the fishbowl existence of being a Canadien, where every part of a player’s life is under intense media and fan scrutiny, it’s difficult to believe there’s something more sinister going on behind closed doors to justify the Canadiens position.

Perhaps Bergevin believes that, having forced Subban to give in and accept a bridge contract last time, he can persuade the blueliner to accept a long-term deal for less money.

If Bergevin can pull that off he’ll be applauded as a genius, but it appears he’s gone to the well once too often. Nobody’s suggesting Bergevin and the Habs should just open the vault and let Subban swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck, but they also shouldn’t be too tightfisted with one of their biggest stars.

Subban, along with goaltender Carey Price, is one of the Canadiens biggest stars. He’s certainly their most exciting player, the most thrilling to don a Habs jersey since the great Guy Lafleur.

Now, before some die-hard Habs and Lafleur fans take me to task for daring to compare Subban to Le Demon Blond, I’m simply saying he’s the most thrilling since Lafleur. I’m fully aware of the differences between the two, but in terms of pure excitement, Subban brings it almost as well as the Flower in his heyday.

Every time Subban gathers the puck in his own zone and heads up ice, you can feel the expectation rising among the fans in the Bell Centre that they’re going to see something fantastic, just as they used to do in the old Montreal Forum whenever Lafleur did the same. Whenever Subban rears back to fire a slapshot, the level of anticipation for a goal rivals that felt when Lafleur fired one of his deceptively powerful slappers on goal.

Perhaps Bergevin and Subban’s agent can work out a new long-term deal next summer when the defenseman is once again a restricted free agent. By requiring an arbiter to settle this impasse, however, Bergevin may have fouled the waters for future negotiations.

The arbitration process is ego bruising for a player. He has to sit and listen while his abilities and achievements to date are downplayed by lawyers representing a general manager keen on reducing the player’s value. While the GM may garner a short-term victory with a one- or two-year contract at a dollar value lower than the player sought, the process ultimately leaves the player feeling unappreciated, setting him upon the path to unrestricted free agency.

It’s been suggested the Canadiens are following the same tactic the Nashville Predators took with Shea Weber, who got a record one-year, $7.5 million deal via arbitration and  subsequently re-signed with the Predators to a lucrative long-term deal the following summer. However, it was the Philadelphia Flyers, not the Predators, who set the terms of Weber’s new deal by signing the defenseman to an offer sheet, forcing the Predators to match the deal.

Does Bergevin really want to take that risk next summer? Sure, the Canadiens could match an expensive offer sheet next summer for Subban, but a rival club could make that pitch merely as a tactic to force the Canadiens to pay out far more of their valuable cap space than they desired to retain Subban.

All that’s known now is what seemed a fait accompli – Subban re-signing a lucrative long-term extension with the Canadiens – is no longer so. Perhaps Subban will swallow his pride, play through this season and agree to a lengthy new deal before next summer with the Canadiens. Maybe that’s what Bergevin is gambling upon.

Then again, Subban could merely seek a one-year deal from the Canadiens next summer, intending to depart in the summer of 2016 via unrestricted free agency, where a number of teams will happily pony up whatever he wants.

If that’s all Subban wants next summer, the Canadiens face a stark choice. Either re-sign him for one more year with the knowledge he’s gone the following year via the UFA market, or trade him for the best possible return and avoid the distraction of his contract status overshadowing the club’s performance through 2015-16. Either decision will be unacceptable for Canadiens fans.

Bergevin’s taking a huge risk and its outcome will affect his legacy. Losing Subban will ensure Bergevin joins a two-decades long list of failed Canadiens’ general managers.

3 Comments

  1. How come everyone is so quick to criticize Marc Bergevin without so much as at least mentioning the fact that it could be just as likely that Subban wants 10+ Million per? It’s easy to say “just lock up your franchise D” when you assume he’s only chasing 8 Million per.

  2. I, like you, was convinced they would get a deal done before their arbitration hearing. You make an excellent point. What I don’t understand is why so many people assume this is all Bergevin’s doing. What if Subban and his agent simply aren’t budging from the 8.5 mark? We don’t know what’s going on in the negotiations.