P.K. Subban has been a feel-good story since the June day in Columbus when the Canadiens selected him in the second round of the 2007 National Hockey League entry draft.
The Toronto native regaled the media with tales of growing up as a Canadiens fan and boldly predicted he would make then-general manager Bob Gainey happy he had drafted the high-risk, high-reward defenceman with the 43rd overall pick.
Subban has made good on that promise with a Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman, some outstanding playoff performances and an engaging personality that has made him one of the faces of this iconic franchise.
But the feel-good story took an ugly turn Friday when the Canadiens and Subban went to arbitration after failing to negotiate a long-term contract. Nobody appeared to be feeling good after filing out of a four-hour, closed-door session in Toronto with negotiator Elizabeth Neumeier.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had no comment and Subban and agent Don Meehan both rejected the suggestion a deal could be done before the arbitrator issues her ruling on the weekend. She has until noon Sunday to make a decision and once it is made it is binding for the coming season.
Meehan told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston there were no plans to resume negotiations and Subban said he would “have to live” with Neumeier’s decision.
Friday’s hearing was an example of why players and teams strive to avoid arbitration. Of the 23 cases slated for arbitration this summer, 21 were settled before the hearings. Arbitration is often an acrimonious affair and neither side emerged from Friday’s discussion unscathed.
Bergevin’s failure to get a deal done calls into question his vision for the Canadiens. The GM is committed to building through the draft, but he has risked alienating a key ingredient in that recipe. When you have one of the best defencemen in the NHL, someone who is passionate about playing in a city whose charms aren’t universally appreciated, you have to do everything you can to keep him happy. The price of replacing a Subban — even if a player of that calibre is available — would probably exceed his asking price.
One explanation for Bergevin’s failure may be a tendency to undervalue Subban’s contributions. Ask Bergevin or coach Michel Therrien about Subban and they’re likely to emphasize all the things the defenceman has to learn rather than recognize what he has accomplished. When Steve Yzerman was putting together Canada’s Olympic team, Bergevin’s support for Subban was lukewarm at best.
Subban will be back with the Canadiens next season and there’s no reason to believe he will deliver anything but his best — but there’s a real danger that his relationship with the club has been damaged. There’s still time for a long-term deal before Subban could become an unrestricted free agent in 2016, but rest assured the price will be higher and there’s a risk Subban’s love affair with the city and the Canadiens will have cooled.
Subban’s reputation is also in danger of being tarnished. While he is arguably the most popular athlete in Montreal, he has had to overcome bigotry and critics who feel he’s too much of an individual. A contract dispute resulted in Subban missing the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and he worked hard to win over fans and some of his teammates after accepting a two-year bridge deal worth $5.75 million.
At the time, there were reports Subban was looking for a long-term deal for the type of money Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty earns ($7 million a season). In retrospect, that deal would be regarded as a bargain today.
The latest impasse will raise questions about Subban’s motivation. While there is a suggestion the Canadiens undervalue Subban, might it also be suggested Subban is overvaluing himself?
On Thursday, the defenceman attempted to ease the angst that has accompanied his contract talks by borrowing a line from good friend Carey Price and advising fans to “chill out.” There was every expectation that a last-minute deal would avoid arbitration and there were unconfirmed reports the Canadiens were offering an eight-year deal worth $64 million.
If those figures are correct, Subban might have a public-relations problem. With the salary cap rising next year, the Subban camp may believe he will be worth more down the line. Subban’s self-confidence can also be viewed as greed. It’s difficult to empathize with someone who turns down a deal that would give him the highest salary-cap hit for any defenceman in the NHL.
It would be a mistake to think this is the beginning of the end for Subban in Montreal. Consider that Shea Weber went to arbitration in 2011 with the Predators and he’s still in Nashville. But there’s no doubt the relationship between Subban and the Canadiens has been damaged and it will take time — and a lot of money — to rebuild it.
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette