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.