Monday, June 17, 2013

Paying the Piper

Watching P.K.Subban accept the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenceman on Saturday night was an absolute delight. Not only did he carry himself with grace and intelligence, but he looked darn smart in his outstanding mustard-coloured suit as well. For Subban, whose attitude and style have been over analyzed and found wanting by so many pundits around the league since his arrival in Montreal three years ago, his Norris win must be a bit of a vindication, even if he's too classy to say so.

Now, in the aftermath of Subban's victory, Habs fans, who enjoyed the moment for about thirty seconds before finding something to worry about, are worrying. Specifically, they're worrying about how much GM Marc Bergevin will now have to pay to retain the Norris-calibre defenceman's services. Many are slamming Bergevin for failing to sign Subban long-term last summer. That, they say, would have avoided the Subban start-of-season holdout. And, it would have kept the cap hit for a long deal to a manageable level, since Subban had not yet proven he deserved a superstar's salary. Now, the concern is Norris-winner Subban will need extra millions to stick around and the team won't be able to afford a winning supporting cast.

Habs fans, as usual, are probably getting worked up much earlier than they actually need to. No matter what happened last summer, P.K.Subban is going to get paid. If he had signed long-term, the dollar value of this year and next would have been much higher than it turned out to be. That would have been problematic for next year especially, with a dropping salary cap and big, long-term salaries already on the books.

Also, Subban's agent, Don Meehan, is widely recognized as being one of the smartest guys in the business. There's little chance he would have been willing to accept a low-ball offer on behalf of his client, knowing the potential of the young player and the role he had already assumed for the Canadiens. Meehan, as well as any GM or fan out there, could see the composition of the Habs D-corps, the potential (or lack thereof) of replacing Subban from among the up-and-comers in Hamilton, the cap situation both this and next year, the comparable defenders who could be available through trade and the Habs' ability to make such a trade and the choices likely to hit the free agent market. He knew what Subban means to the Canadiens and would mean in the future, and he was hardly likely to sacrifice his commission on an overly cap-friendly hometown discount. So, even if Bergevin had come up with the five-year, five-million-per kind of contract fans were advocating, Meehan might have been fairly hesitant about committing his player to what could be a major bargain for the team.

Now, when Meehan and Bergevin open negotiations on Subban's extension, the Habs will be talking about the young man's place on a roster that will be losing the big-money contracts of Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov. The salary cap will likely be on the rise from next year's post-lockout reduction. Subban will cost a lot to lock up long-term, but his Norris win should actually put minds at ease. Last season, nobody really knew whether Subban would be able to put all his special skills together to consistently dominate the game. Bergevin obviously had cap concerns for the coming season, but he also wanted to see Subban prove himself before he committed big money to the kid. That he got more out of Subban than he bargained for shouldn't be viewed as a mistake on his part, but as a happy surprise for the team. Now, when the Habs pay the man, they know they're paying a star what he's worth. Those earned contracts aren't the ones that hurt teams. Paying the likes of Scott Gomez superstar money is what prevents a team from becoming competitive.

In his comments, both post-holdout and post-Norris win, Subban expressed himself with confidence, but was also very clear about his personal goal being the Stanley Cup, and being part of a winning team, rather than the star of the team. Smart players, like Sidney Crosby, earn their money. They also make sure they don't take salaries so big their bosses will never be able to pay enough other good players to form a winning team. So, even though the market may say Subban deserves seven or eight million a year, he'll take his desire to be part of a winning team into account when he enters contract negotiations.

That said, nobody would blame Subban for feeling slightly sour about some of the actions of and comments made by his coach and GM in the last year. He accepted his current two-year deal under obvious duress, as Bergevin had made himself clear about not budging, despite what Subban thought (rightly as it turned out) was inadequate compensation for his contributions to the team. Subban was a bargain this year and will be one next year as well, and that has to chafe a player who feels he deserved better for what he provides to his team. Then, Bergevin, after Subban's nomination for the Norris, tempered his positive comments by calling the player "a work in progress." Coach Michel Therrien banned Subban and Carey Price's "triple-low-five" post-win celebration, saying the players were making the focus about themselves rather than the team. And, in March, Therrien singled out Subban for taking a bad penalty that cost a game-winning PP goal. All in all, Subban didn't get a whole lot of public love from his immediate bosses, and noticeably didn't mention either of Bergevin or Therrien in the list of thank yous he handed out after his Norris win. Whether Subban remembers those things during negotiations is anybody's guess, but one would hope he doesn't.

The temptation now, based on the way Bergevin has handled the Subban file, will be for the Habs GM to wait until the new season is well underway before opening talks on a new deal. If Subban continues to perform at the level he showed en route to winning the Norris, there will be no option other than to offer the player superstar money, with the hope that he'll be lenient in his demands in the interest of having good teammates around him. If Subban, no longer driven by the post-holdout commentary about his motivation and his subsequent desire to "show 'em," regresses a bit, it might inspire Bergevin to try to haggle.

The important thing after Subban's win, is to make sure the player is happy. After all, the last guy to win the Norris in Montreal ended up in Chicago two years later. Chris Chelios went on to win two more Norris Trophies there, along with two Stanley Cups in Detroit. The Canadiens let their last great defenceman go on to find glory elsewhere. It's imperative that they don't do the same thing to Subban. In the end, that means Subban's contract will be expensive and long. It will also be worth it.