P.K. Subban may believe he’s still a top defenseman in the NHL, but he’ll have to settle for just being one of the top guys on the underperforming New Jersey Devils. The Devils have no choice but to do the same.
Subban and Devils Disappoint
Following the trade that brought Subban to the Devils last offseason, expectations were significantly raised for a team that had just finished third from last place in the entire league with 31-41-10 record. After all, in addition to Subban, the Devils had also acquired Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights. Furthermore, they signed Wayne Simmonds as an unrestricted free agent and drafted superstar-in-the-making Jack Hughes first overall.
Finally, after he had been limited to 33 games the previous season, the Devils also had a relatively healthy Taylor Hall back in the fold. After dealing him away in an ill-advised early-season trade, the Devils seemingly have to keep Subban in it as a result, with the team currently a disappointing non-playoff-bound 28-29-12.
It’s not simply because Subban is a household name. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from such a superficial assessment of the situation. There’s a far more practical purpose at play here.
Subban’s Bad Season… Worse Contract
There’s no denying Subban had a bad season. Subban’s inability to produce is in part what led the Devils to stumble out of the starting gate and feel forced into trading away Hall. In effect, Subban picked it up wayyy too late, with a four-point effort in his final five games of the season before the pandemic put things on hold. His 14 points in 63 games up to that point (18 in 68 overall) were too few for a guy making $9 million against the cap.
No one in a sane frame of mind would argue otherwise, especially considering how in his prime Subban could score upwards of 50. However, there is a case to be made that trading the 31-year-old, at least this coming offseason, would be far from prudent and that’s even taking into account the Norris Memorial Trophy winner’s contract.
Of course, the no-movement clause Subban negotiated with the Montreal Canadiens no longer applies. So, the Devils could theoretically deal him, but for what? His value is at an all-time low and you wouldn’t get much back, namely because you’d be asking any potential trading partner to take on his contract. That’s essentially a favor in this climate, with no one really knowing how the pandemic will affect the salary cap.
Even if cap does goes up, there are literally only a handful of teams who could likely afford to take on the deal and that’s including the Devils themselves. Furthermore, there are fewer teams still who would want to make that kind of commitment. One of those few teams should still be the Devils, who, with the NHL’s lowest cap hit right now, would be dangerously close to the current $60.2 million cap floor without it.
Subban Staying Put
So, the Devils are in between a rock and a hard place. If the cap goes up, the floor will presumably rise too, meaning they would need Subban’s contract even more, barring a huge spending spree by interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald this upcoming free-agency period. If the cap stays flat or goes down, so too will their amount of prospective trading partners.
The only realistic hope the Devils have to rid themselves of the deal, if they really want to, is to wait a season until there’s one left remaining before Subban becomes an unrestricted free agent. The reasoning is such that other teams wouldn’t have to make as much of a commitment, taking it on. Plus, it gives Subban a chance to build up his trade value.
Ideally speaking, Subban would rediscover the offensive aspect of his game. The underlying stats say it is more than possible Subban does. In such an instance, the Devils should have a much easier time trading him, with only one season left on his deal and the cap having increased at least somewhat. However, would they really want to, then? Should they?
Subban remains a polarizing player. His skill has never come into question, though. Under the right circumstances, he can still have a net positive impact on a team, even taking his massive contract into account.
The Devils may be looking for someone to blame, but, rationally speaking, not only can they not get rid of him if they wanted to, but Subban is not the reason for their struggles. Furthermore, he was far from the only Devils player to struggle. To illustrate the point, if an in-his-prime, Hart Memorial Trophy winner like Hall can put up a modest 25 points (six goals) in 30 games for the Devils when he was still with them, an in-decline Subban is not their biggest concern.
Instead of scapegoating Subban by trading him, if the idea has even been floated around, the focus for Devils management should be on turning the team around as a whole. Love him or hate him, Subban will be a part of it. The good news is he can still help, even if he’s not the top defenseman he once was. For better or worse, he can still be a top defenseman on the Devils. There’s value in that, even if it may not be worth $9 million. Give it time though, like a season or so. It’s not like he’s going anywhere.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.