Norris Nod Shows Price is Right For P.K.

When P.K. Subban signed a contract extension last season that gave him the highest cap hit among all National Hockey League defensemen, Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin took some heat from the fan base for not getting it done at a more cap friendly rate.

Subban’s nomination for the Norris Trophy, which became official last night, along with Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty, proves the Habs defender is worth every penny of his nine million dollar cap hit.

The vitriol towards Bergevin over the Subban contract stemmed from the infamous bridge deal signed by Subban before the lockout shortened 2013 campaign. Subban wanted a long term deal, but ultimately settled on a two year pact that came with a 2.875 million dollar cap hit, after missing the first six games of the season.

Subban then went out, led all defensemen in points with 38 in 42 games, scored 11 goals, led the Canadiens to a division title and won his first Norris Trophy.

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Subban contract negotiations in 2013 was the first major decision made by freshman GM Bergevin, and it appeared he erred by forcing the defenseman who was oozing potential to sign a short term deal. Now he would have to sign Subban to an absolutely monstrous contract a year after he won the best defenseman award.

Subban didn’t disappoint in year two of his bridge contract. He scored ten goals, 53 points and then stepped up in the postseason by scoring 14 points in 17 games as the Canadiens advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.

Then came the tough negotiations.

Bergevin Criticized for Handling of Negotiations

Subban filed for arbitration, but it was thought things would never get to that point. Arbitration can get messy, and star players very rarely are forced into the process. Yet, on August 1, 2014, Subban and his agent, along with Habs brass including Bergevin, met with an arbiter to help the two sides come to terms on a contract.

In these cases, a third party, “arbiter” will hear the case from both sides, and come up with a decision on what the player will make, on a one year contract. They give their ruling 48 hours after the meeting, and then the team can either accept the one year ruling, or deny it, but then the player automatically becomes an unrestricted free agent if the team doesn’t agree to the arbiter’s terms.

Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens, NHL, Milestones
Habs GM Marc Bergevin has put together a good up-and-coming team in Montreal. (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

But, before it ever came to a ruling by a third party, the Canadiens and Subban agreed to a 72 million dollar, eight year contract. Subban would immediately carry the highest cap hit of any defensemen in the league, though that is a little misleading. With the new restrictions on length on deals, Subban and the Habs didn’t have the same loopholes to exploit, like the Chicago Blackhawks did with Duncan Keith, or the Minnesota Wild did when they plucked Ryan Suter from the Nashville Predators.

Chicago and Minnesota, among other teams, signed their top defensemen to 13 year deals, but the last few years of the contract come with salaries that are dwarfed by the first decade of the deal. This drops the cap hit dramatically throughout the course of the deal, but Montreal did not have that luxury in 2013, due to rulings in the new CBA that resulted in half of the season being canceled.

Regardless of the rationalization for the large cap hit in Subban’s deal, he certainly entered this season with added pressure and expectations after signing by far the biggest contract in the history of the Montreal Canadiens.

Rival Players Crumbled Under Pressure, Subban Thrived

He wouldn’t have been the first player to fade under the spotlight of a huge salary. Just look across the division at the Habs historic rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs. They signed their best forward, Phil Kessel and top defenseman Dion Phaneuf to huge deals, similar to Subban’s, heading into this season, but both could be run out of town this summer.

Kessel responded to nearly doubling his salary, by taking the second half of the season off, resulting in his lowest goal total since his rookie season, and his lowest point total since he played 70 games in his first season with the Leafs. Though 25 goals and 61 points isn’t necessarily a bad year for most players, it was a big dip for Kessel, and happened to be during the first year of his 64 million dollar, eight year contract.

Phaneuf saw his offensive totals all but disappear. His three goals were by far the lowest of his career, and his 29 points were only one more than he scored in the 48 game season of 2013. His production was so far below expectations, recently fired GM Dave Nonis claimed he came very close to trading Phaneuf, halfway through the first year of a 49 million dollar, seven year contract.

Subban Set many Career Highs In His Best Season Yet

Subban on the other hand, responded by setting a career high in goals (15), points (60), plus minus (+21), is leading the team in playoff points after the opening round and took on more of a leadership role with the departure of Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta last summer. He makes slightly more than the top paid players in Toronto, but Subban took his game to a higher level after signing his deal, while his counterparts took a step backward.

His 60 points were second in the league among defenders behind Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, and his 26:12 TOI per game is another career high for the 25 year old, and was 6th in the NHL. Subban’s bump in ice time this season can be attributed to him taking on a much larger role on the team’s penalty kill. He went from averaging 0:40 per game shorthanded last season, to 2:09 this year. Considering the Habs maintained an 83.7% success rate when down a man, good for 7th in the league and Subban’s plus-minus jumped from -4 to +21, he went a long way toward dispelling the myth that he is an offense only defenseman that can’t take care of business in his own end.

It may have cost the Canadiens a significant portion of their cap, and a lot more this season than it would have if Subban signed a four or five year deal, instead of a two year bridge contract in 2013. However, you can’t really put a price on having one of the world’s best defenseman locked up through the entire prime of his career, and this Norris nomination proves he certainly is among the best, if not the number one defender in the NHL.

Of course, had he signed a four or five year deal when he inked the bridge contract, he would be a pending UFA in either 2016 or 2017. Thankfully, the Canadiens have avoided that potential disaster and have their best skater locked up until 2022.