As the days of the abbreviated NHL training camps slip away, it's becoming more likely that the Canadiens will open their season on Saturday night without P.K.Subban in the lineup. The 2007 second-round pick would be starting his third full year with the club if not for a stalemate between his agent, Don Meehan, and Habs' G.M. Marc Bergevin.
Without the benefit of a fly's eye view from a handy wall in Bergevin's office, it would appear one of two things is happening. Either Bergevin is trying to seriously low ball Subban because of the looming cap crunch he's facing next year, or Subban believes he is entitled to a greater payday than he perhaps deserves.
If Bergevin is balking for fear of next year's payroll, there are ways to save money other than alienating a talented young player who could be a cornerstone of the organization for many years to come. The team is entitled to another buyout before next season, and after that, some big contracts (Markov, Kaberle, Gionta) run out. Unless Subban and Meehan are asking for really big money and/or term, there's little reason for Bergevin to drag out negotiations for cap reasons. If the two sides are close, there's a solution available.
If, however, Subban is expecting a big payday on a second contract, there may be a larger issue. Of the NHL defencemen who are his contemporaries and who signed mega-money long-term deals while still RFA, most are demonstrably better than Subban. For example, Erik Karlsson's 7-year, 6.5-million per year contract with Ottawa makes him the tenth highest-paid D in the league. He also has a 78-point season and a Norris Trophy to his credit. Drew Doughty has an 8-year deal with the Kings, with a 7-million cap hit, placing him fourth in the league among defencemen. Doughty's name is on the Stanley Cup, he's got an Olympic gold medal, he was drafted second overall and became a Norris finalist. Tyler Myers, another first-rounder, has a 5.5-million cap hit in Buffalo for 7 seasons. He's a former NHL rookie of the year and in his worst season points-wise, he had one point less than Subban did in his best year. None of these comparisons are meant to diminish the value, ability or potential of Subban, but those three players are the only defencemen under 25 with cap hits bigger than 4-million dollars.
Looking at an in-house comparison, Subban's should perhaps expect to follow the path of teammate Carey Price. Price came to the team as the Canadiens' highest draft pick since Petr Svoboda in 1984. His subsequent performances at the World Juniors and in the Bulldogs' Calder Cup championship launched his star and built expectations. Price, like Subban, had some bumpy moments in Montreal, culminating with losing the starting job during the 2010 playoff run. Still, there was never a question in the minds of management that the team's future was linked to Price's success. Subban also came to town with high expectations and has had some stretches of living up to them, and other periods of slow production and public controversy. Both young players are very important parts of the team's future.
Price's second contract was for two years, with a cap hit of 2.75-million. That gave the team a two-year break on paying big money, while Price had a chance to prove himself and cash in on his third deal, which he did last summer. A lot of people who don't get to sit inside contract negotiations might say if it's good enough for Carey Price, it should be good enough for P.K.Subban. That may be logical, but of course nobody really knows the circumstances. It's just a comparison worth mentioning.
At this point, nobody really doubts Subban and the Canadiens will come to a deal. Bergevin has already confirmed he won't be trading the player and as an RFA, Subban's options are limited. The big problem with the situation right now is its timing. Coming off a horrible team season and long summer, followed by the five-month league lockout, the Canadiens are facing a packed schedule in which every point carries huge significance. Playing even one game without a complete lineup reduces their chances of success. When the missing player is a top-four defenceman who eats minutes, the loss hurts a little more, as does the fact that he's missing for business reasons, not hockey reasons. Subban's missing camp is one thing, but when he starts sitting out games that count, the goodwill of fans and even teammates will eventually sour.We all know hockey is a business, but fans have had quite enough of the business of hockey at this point.
P.K.Subban is a good hockey player. He's got potential to be a great hockey player. Right now, he's got to stop and think...very hard...about whether he can recognize the difference. He's not great yet, and probably won't end up getting paid as though he is, no matter how long he sits home without a contract. The hope is that he and his agent can put things in perspective before Saturday.