by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

The face of the Canadiens? While the Habs have begun their 2012-13 season, P.K. Subban still awaits a new contract.

Throughout the summer of 2012, Montreal Canadiens fans waited with nervous anticipation for the announcement that the team had re-signed its star blueliner, P.K. Subban. With only a limited window of opportunity before a presumed lockout, other NHL clubs were racing to lock up their key on-ice personnel for as long as possible while the rules still permitted long-term back-diving contracts. Though it was a long-running staple of the Canadiens’ philosophy to avoid those types of larger deals for players just coming off their entry-level contracts, with the new regime under Marc Bergevin in place, many thought and hoped that he would break out of that mould for a special player like Subban. But as the clock ticked down to September 15th, word started to emerge that the two sides were on very different philosophical wavelengths, and thus no contract was signed before the lockout began. Many hoped that a deal would come in time for Subban to start the season with Montreal, but that did not happen, and with each passing day things sound more and more negative in the media.

There has been growing concern among many Canadiens fans that Subban will end up being traded out of town because of the inability of Bergevin and Don Meehan (Subban’s agent) to bridge the gap in terms of term and dollars. It’s not the desired outcome of either side. Both the organization and the player agree that P.K. Subban should be a member of the Canadiens for a long time. How the dollars get assigned, and over what course of time those dollars get assigned, has proven to be an intractable issue in the short run. It is my contention that Subban will ultimately get re-signed with Montreal in time to play the majority of this lockout-shortened 2013 season, but the discussion that follows is the path that has to be navigated to arrive at that final destination.
Montreal’s Organizational Philosophy

This negotiation is GM Marc Bergevin’s first big test in Montreal

As previously stated, the Montreal Canadiens have tended to be conservative when it comes to awarding players term and dollars when coming off of their entry-level contracts. Recent history is replete with examples of this organizational culture: Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec, and Max Pacioretty are the three key players to look at for guidance as to how Bergevin is approaching these negotiations. These three represent core pieces of the Canadiens, and all of them have gone through a similar process to what Subban is experiencing now. Let’s look at the contract history of these players in chronological order, beginning with Plekanec.

Coming off his entry level deal, Plekanec actually went through two more contracts during his restricted free agent years: he signed a 2-year deal that covered the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons with a modest cap hit of just $1.8M before signing a one-year contract with a $2.75M deal for the 2009-10 season. It wasn’t until the 2007-08 campaign that Plekanec had firmly established himself as one of the Canadiens top centres, a dynamic two-way player that could be used in any situation. He was a major piece of the Canadiens finishing 1st in the East in 07-08, playing on a line with Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn where he put up 69 points and was a +15. He regressed somewhat in 2008-09, but bounced back with a career year in 2009-10, scoring 70 points and earning a big contract just as he entered unrestricted free agent status. The Canadiens awarded Plekanec with a 6-year, $30M contract, which is still the richest of any forward on the team. Plekanec was a bargain player for his RFA years, and though the Canadiens recognized his contributions on the ice he still had to go through the process of negotiating short-term deals for a median value before cashing in with the big deal.

Carey Price was a star for the Canadiens from the moment he took his first steps on the ice at the Bell Centre. He had everything that the organization could ask for in a hockey player: immense talent, good looks, a calm demeanour, and a willingness to work hard to be the best. He is far and away the most popular Canadiens player on the roster, and his merchandise is everywhere in Montreal and across Canada. He has become a brand. But even Price was not immune to the Canadiens system of second contracts. Circumstances involving the goaltender position in Montreal dictated that as much as anything, with Price having been relegated to the backup role for most of the 2009-10 season as Jaroslav Halak became an instant playoff hero due to his spectacular play that carried the Habs to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1993. Both Price and Halak were coming off their entry level deals simultaneously, and it appeared evident that the Canadiens would not or could not retain both.

Once the decision was made to trade Halak to St. Louis, it firmly established that Price would be the Canadiens #1 goalie. But there had been questions about Price and whether he could be “the man” in Montreal over the long haul. As such, the contract talks between the Canadiens and Price’s agent dragged on until September, which angered many Habs fans who would have preferred that Halak had been retained. Price had stated all along that he wanted to play his whole career in Montreal, and that the length of the negotiations was because he wanted a long-term contract. The Canadiens stuck to their mantra, however, and ultimately Price would sign a 2-year contract for $5.5M. Meanwhile, in St. Louis Halak had signed a 4-year deal for $15M, a reflection of the Blues’ greater organizational leeway in awarding contracts. Price would go on to have a career year in 2010-11 that gave fans, media, and the club full confidence that the Canadiens had chosen wisely, and in the summer of 2012 he signed a 6-year $39M contract that will guarantee he stays with the team until 2018.

Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec are two prime examples of how the Canadiens have handled players coming off their entry-level contracts.

Max Pacioretty is the latest player to have to go through the Canadiens system. Having debuted in the 2008-09 season, he spent much of his first three years bouncing between Montreal and Hamilton, only firmly establishing himself as a full-time NHL’er in the 2010-11 season. He was enjoying a solid campaign when the infamous Zdeno Chara incident happened on March 8th, ending Pacioretty’s season after just 37 games, in which time Pacioretty had scored 14 goals and added 10 assists. The organization stood behind their young player, helping his rehabilitation every step of the way and ensuring that once he was healthy he would have a place with the big club. He was re-signed in June, still during his rehab process, to a 2-year deal with a $1.625M cap hit. With so many questions about his long-term health, it was the prudent move in any circumstance, but nonetheless followed the organization’s pattern of a short-term bridge that could pay off big time for the player in future years. Pacioretty answered any questions about his ability to recuperate and regain his old form, as he had a stellar 2011-12 season, scoring 33 goals and totalling 65 points. New general manager Bergevin was so impressed that he quickly signed Pacioretty to a long-term contract extension that takes effect in 2013-14, which will run for 6 years at $4.5M per season.

There is therefore a well-established pattern in the Montreal organization when it comes to handling their young players, one which some feel it is presumptuous and even arrogant for Subban to feel that he should not have to go through that process. Plekanec, Price, and Pacioretty all had questions coming off their entry-level contracts, and those have surely been answered as evidenced by the long-term rewards they all received after their second deals had concluded. Are there still questions about Subban’s abilities and attitude over the long term? Some say yes, others are less concerned with them relative to their concerns about seeing a legitimate star (on and off the ice) potentially slip through Montreal’s fingers. Fans with long memories point to Chris Chelios, another highly talented young man whose reputation got him traded out of Montreal before he reached the peak of his talents. For P.K. to buck the trend of the second contract in Montreal would be a break with history, and the Canadiens are not 100% sold that, regardless of the appeal of Subban, he is such a special case that he should receive special treatment relative to his peers.

Who Are Subban’s Peers?

Establishing comparables is a difficult job, which is why it largely rests in the hands of supremely talented agents who negotiate on behalf of the players. Don Meehan is one of the best in the business, if not the best. He has been a representative of the top stars of the game for decades now, and deserves every bit of the reputation he has earned for being a skilled and savvy negotiator who always gets his star clients top dollars. Throughout this lengthy process with Subban, he has remained tight-lipped and careful not to divulge much, if any, information to the public about his objectives. All we truly know is that Subban wants a long-term deal with the Canadiens, and that he wants to be paid commensurate with what he brings to the team.

Let’s look at the numbers for Subban in his young career. While his offensive production dropped off from 14 goals in 2010-11 to just 7 last season, he remained a vital part of the team’s power play and penalty-killing units, logging an average of over 24 minutes of ice time per game, highest among all Canadiens. He was on the top pairing with Josh Gorges, which meant that Subban lined up against the other team’s top offensive threats. On a disastrous season for the Canadiens, Subban emerged as a +9, which was an improvement of 17 goals for from the previous season. It is rare to see that happen on a team that finishes in last place and for a player who went from a mid-pairing role to a pre-eminent one on his team.

This is why it is so difficult to find comparables to Subban around the NHL. While he is not yet in the class of the likes of Shea Weber or Drew Doughty, two other top young defencemen who received long-term contracts while still in their RFA years (indeed, Doughty signed a monster contract coming off his entry-level contract and held out for a portion of last season to attain it), he is among the top young stars of the NHL. Those two other players play on their top lines, and Subban is just a couple notches below them in terms of talent and untapped potential. There are few young blueliners who have ascended to the pinnacle of their position as quickly as Subban, and that makes the search to find similar players of similar calibre difficult.

Some people pointed to the short-term, medium dollar contracts that were recently signed by Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers and Dmitry Kulikov of the Florida Panthers. Those comparisons are wildly off-base, in my opinion. Del Zotto signed a 2-year, $5.1M contract and Kulikov signed a 2-year, $5M contract, leading some to believe that Subban should receive a similar arrangement from Montreal. While those two players are good young talents, are either of them as integral to the fortunes of their respective clubs as Subban is to the Canadiens? Most GMs would eagerly jump at the opportunity to lock up Subban for that contract, but there is no possibility of that happening. On the Rangers the more apt comparison is with Ryan McDonagh, who is presently in the final year of his entry-level deal; indeed, he and his agent are likely eagerly anticipating the deal that Subban signs so that they can use it as leverage in their own negotiations with the Rangers in the coming months.

Rather than look to those two players who were in a similar situation to Subban and signed deals after the lockout, there are three comparables out there that I would suspect Meehan is using in his negotiations with Bergevin: John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks, and Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres.

Cam Fowler of the Anaheim Ducks is one of a handful of young defencemen in the NHL at the same level as P.K.

 

All three of these players are at the same skill level and assumed to have the same upside as Subban; indeed, one could argue that when he reaches his peak, Subban will surpass all three of them. These are the long-term deals that these three young defencement signed coming off of their entry level contracts: Carlson, 6 years, $23.8M, includes 3 years of UFA status; Fowler, 5 years, $20, all RFA years; Myers, 7 years, $38.5M, includes 3 years of UFA status. That works out to a range of between $4M and $5.5M per season for three potentially elite defencemen. True, Myers has a Calder Trophy to his credentials and is light-years ahead of his teammates when it comes to anchoring the blue line in Buffalo, so that extra money is well-merited. Carlson and Fowler are both key figures to their respective clubs, who play top minutes and earn the tougher assignments. Both Carlson’s and Fowler’s numbers are very close to Subban’s through their first two campaigns and both will feature with their clubs for years to come.

Montreal’s Own Salary Structure

While one may very well agree that Subban deserves to be paid an amount equal or similar to Carlson/Fowler/Myers, one also has to consider the Canadiens own salary cap structure and situation. Even though the compliance buyout of Scott Gomez was allowed to be accelerated, and there remains the potential for another to be used after this season on someone like Tomas Kaberle or Rene Bourque, the Canadiens do not have the most opportune situation in the next two years. The Habs have always been a team that spends right to the limit, as money is not an issue for the Molson empire. But with a cap limit of $64.3M for 2013-14, and the team already having committed $53.2M to just 16 players, a long-term big-dollar contract for Subban now could result in the Canadiens being unable to chase a top-level scoring threat to boost their offence.

As of today, the top salary-earners for the Canadiens are: Andrei Markov, $5.75M; Tomas Kaberle, $4.25M; and Josh Gorges, $3.9M. While Kaberle may not feature into the Canadiens’ long term plans, Markov will assuredly remain with the team for as long as his knees enable him, and Gorges features to be the next captain of the club once Brian Gionta’s time in Montreal comes to a conclusion. Subban has had some minor conflicts (though with the Montreal media’s unending glare, is there any conflict that is “minor”?) with teammates in practice, and he can be viewed as being standoff-ish in the same manner as baseball slugger Manny Ramirez. P.K. is just being P.K., but occasionally that can rankle some people in the rather uptight hockey community. Would his teammates have an issue with the brash youngster, who still has much to prove and much maturing to do, showing up after holding out and already earning considerably more than the established veterans and stars of the time? And even if that is a non-issue, does management want to upset the apple cart with personnel by giving Subban preferential treatment to other players who had to go through the standard second contract process in Montreal? These are all rhetorical questions; I do not presume to know what any player or member of the organization thinks of Subban, but I raise them because they are pertinent questions that may or may not have an actual bearing in the locker room or organization dynamics in Montreal.

What Does It All Mean for Subban?

Habs fans can rest assured that they will be enjoying this young man’s game for many years to come.

I am not usually one for prognostications, as I like to stick to the axiom that predictions are hard, especially those made about the future. While I do feel that the contract situation between Subban and the Canadiens will be resolved relatively quickly and that it will not have any adverse effects on the relationship between the player and the organization in the long haul, I do not really know exactly how this will all pan out. But as I look at the information available to me, and the discussion that has transpired in this article, I think that there will be a compromise position achieved that will placate both parties and set up a much longer and much bigger contract upon its conclusion.

With the opportunity afforded to the Canadiens by the compliance buyouts, and my belief that they will use it to take Kaberle’s deal off the books, the team and Subban will ultimately agree upon a 3-year deal that will have a $4.5M cap hit. It is not a full break with traditional second contracts awarded by Montreal, as they do retain Subban for one more year of RFA status upon the deal’s expiration, and it gives Subban the assurance that he features prominently in the club’s plans going forward. He will be fairly compensated for the level of play he brings on the ice and for the star power he attracts to the Canadiens off the ice. Most importantly of all, the flexibility in the extra year gives each side the opportunity to see exactly where Subban’s level of play will be as he enters into the prime years of his career. There the Canadiens can make the determination to offer a long-term extension of up to 8 years and a much larger portion of the team’s salary cap pie if they feel that Subban has grown into the elite calibre defenceman that he feels he can be and that the team and the fans hope he will be.