Sorting Out the P.K. Subban Signing

The NHL’s summer vacation was interrupted over the weekend with a pair of bombshells from the ongoing P.K. Subban contract watch. First, Subban and the Canadiens actually went through a rare salary arbitration hearing Friday. Then, just hours before that decision was scheduled to be announced, they agreed to a long-term deal that makes Subban the league’s highest-paid defenseman in terms of cap hit.

The news was stunning, and not just because it represented honest-to-god NHL news in August. The contract caps off an almost two-year dance between Subban and the Habs’ front office, one that at times seemed inevitably headed toward disaster.

The announcement was a dramatic finale to a long process. But while the deal provides a definitive answer as to Subban’s immediate future, it still leaves us with more than a few lingering questions. Let’s try to sort this all out.

What just happened?

The basic summary: Until Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens had failed to come to terms with Subban, their 25-year-old Norris-winning defenseman and a restricted free agent. He filed for arbitration, and the hearing took place Friday morning. The arbitrator’s ruling, which would have been for a one-year deal, had been scheduled to come down Sunday. Instead, the two sides announced Saturday that they’d agreed to an eight-year, $72 million deal that will carry an average annual value of $9 million, more than any other blueliner makes.

Is Subban actually worth that much?

That’s the $72 million question, and the answer depends on where you’d rank him among the NHL’s top defensemen. Subban is what we’d politely call a “divisive” player, which is to say he generates an unusually wide range of opinions around the hockey world.

On the one hand, he already owns one Norris Trophy and probably hasn’t even reached his peak yet, which should put him in the discussion for best defenseman in the league. On the other hand, he was used only as a seventh defenseman on Team Canada’s Olympic squad this year, which implies that his all-around game just isn’t at an elite level yet. Beyond his skill set, he’s quite possibly the most charismatic player in the entire league, and lots of fans love him for his enthusiasm. Others have criticized his antics, piling on as soon as there’s the slightest hint of controversy.

A few sites took a shot at the “what is Subban worth?” question in recent weeks, with the answers ranging from roughly $60 million to $75 million on an eight-year contract; the real deal came in at the high end of that range. The average cap hit is also significantly more than comparable players like Erik Karlsson, Alex Pietrangelo, or even Drew Doughty make. In fact, it will be the third-highest cap hit in the league next season, coming in behind only Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

All of that points to this being an overpay, and maybe even a big one. But here’s the thing: Occasional lockout corrections aside, the NHL’s salary cap keeps going up, and it almost certainly will continue to do so for a long time to come. Comparisons to deals signed as far back as 2011 (in Doughty’s case) don’t really hold up. And with the CBA outlawing the sort of ultra-long back-diving deals that other comparables had received, Subban’s total doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. It’s the same logic that led to Jonathan Toews’s and Patrick Kane’s recent extensions that kick in for 2015-16 and carry $10.5 million cap hits. Subban may not be on the Toews tier in terms of overall value, but you could argue he’s at least in the same ballpark as Kane.

And so we’re left with a number that feels like it’s too high, and probably is — right up until the next Subban-type player signs his deal. By the time we’re a few years into this one, it probably starts to seem like a bargain … as long as Subban keeps playing at a Norris contender’s level.

So this is all good news for Montreal, then?

For the most part, sure. All’s well that ends well, and all of that. Even if you think $9 million a year is too much, you’re always better off overpaying your best players than your middle-of-the-lineup guys.

But while the deal itself is good news, the path to get there was an odd one, with the Habs seeming oddly intent on playing hardball throughout the process. For example, their arbitration offer was just $5.25 million on a one-year deal, which came across like a risky lowball. Even stranger, they let this thing get all the way to an arbitration hearing instead of finding a way to settle before then.

Wait, an actual arbitration hearing? They still hold those?

Apparently! You could be forgiven for not knowing that, given that Subban was the only NHL player to actually make it to a hearing this summer. Eighteen other cases were scheduled, but in each case a deal was reached before the hearing took place. (The Blues and Vladimir Sobotka also had a hearing, but that was largely a formality as he’s already signed with a KHL team for next year.)

That followed last year’s clean sweep, in which all 21 arbitration-eligible players settled before their hearing. Subban was the first star player to actually make it to arbitration since Shea Weber in 2011. It sure sounds like something went off the rails here.

Back up for a second … how did we get here?

The path to this point actually starts during the 2012 offseason (which stretched into 2013, thanks to the lockout). Subban was coming off his entry-level deal and was a restricted free agent for the first time. He was a well-regarded young player, but not quite a star, and he only had two full NHL seasons under his belt. He was looking for a long-term contract, while the Canadiens preferred a shorter “bridge” deal.

The two sides failed to reach an agreement before the season opener, and Subban ended up missing the team’s first four games before finally backing down and accepting the team’s terms, signing a two-year deal that paid him a total of $5.75 million. The contract was widely seen as a victory for GM Marc Bergevin and the Habs, but it came with a risk: If Subban made the leap to superstar status over those two years, the Canadiens would end up on the hook for a much bigger long-term deal in 2014 than they could have had in 2012.

That’s exactly what happened. Subban had a breakout season in 2013, winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. He was very good again last season, and is now widely (although not unanimously) viewed as one of the best blueliners in the league. He went into this year’s negotiations expecting to be paid like it, but as a restricted free agent, his leverage went only so far. The two sides negotiated through the summer but couldn’t reach a deal before the dreaded arbitration hearing arrived.

Do we know what exactly got said at the hearing?

We don’t. Arbitration hearings are private, and when Subban’s ended, nobody was willing to go into specifics about what had gone on. Players who have gone to hearings over the years have told horror stories about the experience — nobody likes to sit there while their boss runs down a detailed list of all their perceived flaws — and the process has been known to permanently damage relationships.

That said, it’s up to the team to decide just how vicious it wants to be. When the Predators went to arbitration with Weber in 2011, there was speculation they’d taken a kid-gloves approach to make sure they didn’t offend him. It’s possible Montreal took the same approach.

Speaking of Weber …

Why didn’t some other team just sign Subban to an offer sheet when it had the chance?

As a restricted free agent, Subban theoretically could have signed an offer sheet with any team. That would have given Montreal a week to either match the offer or let him go for draft-pick compensation. That’s what happened to Weber in 2012, the year after he went to arbitration with the Predators. He negotiated with several teams before signing a massive 14-year, $110 million offer sheet with the Flyers that Nashville eventually matched. In terms of total salary, it remains the second-biggest deal in NHL history.

But the Weber situation was a rarity. It’s unusual to see an offer sheet in the NHL, at least partly because they’re viewed as a waste of time since they’re almost always matched. That’s what happened with Weber’s deal, and any team trying to poach Subban would have been in an even weaker position than the Flyers were. For one, the CBA has eliminated front-loading contracts and limited free-agent deals to seven years. More importantly, Philadelphia was trying to prey on a small-market team, while the Canadiens are a financial powerhouse. It’s basically guaranteed they would have matched any deal.

But still, they had a hearing. Subban and the Habs hate each other now, right? The relationship is broken forever?

Oh, hey there, fans of the 29 other NHL teams. Nice of you to join us.

Yes, it’s possible this entire process, and the arbitration hearing specifically, has done irreparable harm to the Subban/Habs relationship. Maybe the two sides are quietly seething with resentment at each other and only reluctantly reached a long-term deal because all the other options were even worse. Remember, Subban’s deal can’t include a no-trade clause until the 2016-17 season, so it’s possible the Habs could turn around and trade him any time before that. Maybe even to your favorite team!

It’s also possible I’m just being polite and humoring you here, because I wanted him to wind up on my team too. Lots of things are possible.

So now that it’s all over, who won?

Well, Subban pretty clearly did. The arbitration hearing wouldn’t have been fun, but even if they just made him watch the Bruins Cup celebration on a loop for four consecutive hours, he’s probably recovered nicely by now. A guaranteed $72 million has that effect on people.

And yes, big deals come with big pressure. Who knows what happens when he has his rough stretch during the season, or even just his first bad shift in October. He’ll be under a microscope. But he was already under a microscope, and he seems like he’s been able to handle it just fine. The bottom line is that Subban spent two years trying to get paid like one of the league’s top defensemen, and in the end, he got it done. He wins.

The Canadiens’ perspective is a little more mixed. They tried to play hardball and took a lot of criticism for that approach, and in the end they ended up signing a deal that was much richer than they wanted to pay (not to mention far more than they could have paid to lock Subban down in 2012). They didn’t exactly lose here — screwing the whole thing up so badly that Subban wound up in a different uniform would have been the loss — but it seems pretty clear they didn’t wind up where they’d hoped to.

How did Habs fans deal with all of this?

During the uncertain last few days before the agreement was reached, they dealt with it about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not well at all. The Canadiens have one of the largest fan bases in the league, so there’s no clear consensus here, but it’s fair to say the reaction was largely negative, ranging from mild panic to abject despair to something much, much worse.

Now? It’s fair to say they’re thrilled. Most were probably hoping for a slightly better cap number, but that pales in comparison to the relief at knowing that your best player is locked up for the long term. They’re a happy bunch. All is forgiven.

Finally, now that this long ordeal is behind us, how should hockey fans celebrate?

Oh, I think you know …

Filed Under: NHL, P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

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