Saturday, August 2, 2014

Is Montreal in Danger of Losing P.K. Subban?

The Montreal Canadiens are playing a dangerous game with star defenceman P.K. Subban, and it might cost them.

Unbelievably, the two sides went to arbitration after a deal could not be worked out. Subban has asked for $8.5 million while the Canadiens have countered with $5.25 million. It is possible a long-term deal is worked out before the arbitrator hands down a decision, but if not the two sides with be bound to the one-year deal awarded by the arbitrator. Afterwards, the Habs will be unable to sign Subban to a new contract until January, 2015. Subban is eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2016.

There is some reason to believe a long-term deal is unlikely, however. Arbitration is never a fun process, especially for the player, as they have to sit there and learn in detail exactly what their team dislikes about their game.

CBC's Elliotte Friedman guessed the lawyers representing the Habs made an argument like this:

"We are not going to argue that PK is a dynamic offensive player who our fans love. But, he has defensive deficiencies and is not in the same class as Shea Weber, who was given a record $7.5 million award three years ago. He is not in the same class as Drew Doughty, who makes $7 million. But, if you want to tell us he is worth $6.5 million like Erik Karlsson, we can accept that."

Players often take arbitration personal, and according to Friedman, Subban left the meeting and "didn't look like himself", calling it an "educational process".

The last superstar restricted free agent that went to arbitration was Shea Weber, and he only ended up long-term in Nashville because he signed an offer sheet with Philadelphia that was matched.

According to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the longer Subban goes without a long-term extension the odds of him going to UFA or being traded increase.

Montreal's insistence on playing hardball with Subban is puzzling. Subban is coming off a two-year bridge deal which came with a $2.875 million cap hit. It took a holdout by Subban that drifted into the season before a resolution was struck. Usually the thinking behind a bridge deal is to determine whether a player is for real then to give him his money once he proves it. During those two years of Subban's cheap deal the Habs were able to escape salary cap hell and ice a competitive team that made the playoffs twice, last year making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final. For being a good soldier and letting the Habs fill out a more competitive roster at his expense, you would think the Habs would be willing to pay the piper. The Canadiens have decided against paying Subban big money, despite his ascension.

Over the past two years Subban has won a Norris Trophy, been named to the Canadian Olympic team, led all defencemen in points with 91, and played top-line minutes in all situations for the Canadiens. Over the past two years with P.K. Subban on the ice the Habs have controlled 52% of all even-strength shot attempts—basically the going rate of a playoff team—but only 47.5% when he's off the ice—which would make them look more like a lottery team. I'm not sure what else Subban can do to prove he's an elite defenceman.

Subban right now is probably one of the best five defencemen in the league, at worst he's in the top 10. With over $11.5 million in cap space, Subban isn't someone to nickel and dime. If you want to save money do it on the bottom-6 or the backup goalie. Those are easily replaced positions. Players like Subban very rarely become available. Just look at how expensive free agent defencemen were this off-season, and most of them were a collection of second-pairing guys, no true No. 1 amongst them.

The thing is, $8.5 million really isn't unreasonable for someone like Subban, and if that's all it takes to get Subban signed for the next eight seasons the Habs should be ecstatic. Shea Weber's $7.5 million arbitration award in 2011-12 works out to $8.05 million under today's cap (and that deal bought out no UFA years). Drew Doughty's $7 million contract in 2011-12 works out to $7.51 million under today's cap, although that deal bought out four RFA years and four UFA years (Subban has fewer RFA years to buy out at a discount).  Erik Karlsson's contract in 2012-13 is also close to $7.5 million under today's cap, which again bought out fewer UFA years than a potential Subban deal would.

If the Habs fail to sign Subban to a long-term contract before the arbitrator hands down a decision, the closer Subban will be to becoming a UFA and the more tempting the thought of a major pay day becomes. Players of Subban's calibre, at his age, do not make it to unrestricted free agency. Teams don't let them.

If the Canadiens don't want to pay Subban the $8.5 million he seeks, or anything reasonably close to it, they certainly aren't going to like the $10+ million he gets in a few years as a free agent. At that point they will have no one to blame but themselves.

1 comment:

Matt Horner said...

It would seem the answer is a definitive no.

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