It was Marc Bergevin’s biggest conundrum from the moment he took over as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, a little more than two years ago this week.
Two seasons and all kinds of drama later, it remains his most pressing issue – even as his team is in a fight for its life in its second-round series with the Boston Bruins entering Monday’s must-win Game 6 in Montreal.
What on earth do you pay P.K. Subban?
And how much is too much?
It was an easier question to answer two seasons ago, before the dynamic Habs defenceman cemented his star status with a Norris Trophy, Olympic appearance and, now with an exclamation point this spring, a remarkable postseason in which he’s been one of the NHL’s scoring leaders.
More than that, Subban’s become the primary focal point for one of the best teams in the league, as the Bruins made hitting, goading and even spraying him with a water bottle a top priority in Game 5’s 4-2 win.
(Fourth-liner Shawn Thornton paid the price for that last particular indiscretion with a nearly $3,000 fine from the league office on Sunday afternoon, a small price to pay for getting under the skin of an opponent. “I obviously got caught up in the moment,” he said.)
That Subban is so front and centre, every game, in such a heated series speaks to his value, which has essentially been ticking up in every one of the last 24 months.
Back in 2012, Bergevin went the hardball route with Subban and his agent, and they settled on a bargain of a two-year deal, punting the tougher decision down the road to this summer.
In hindsight, it was the wrong call – and not just because they’re in for protracted negotiations yet again with one of the most prominent faces of the franchise.
Subban’s absolute ceiling coming out of his entry level deal would have been set by the eight years and $7-million a season Drew Doughty got from the Los Angeles Kings a year earlier, a contract that would have limited him to a lower number given what the two had accomplished.
Now, with the hardware, the accolades and his performance in these playoffs, the numbers being thrown around are starting with an eight, which would give Subban the highest cap hit of any blueliner in the league starting next fall.
Some of that comes back to the fact we’re dealing a much higher salary cap. A $7-million hit under a $60-million cap is roughly equivalent to an $8.2-million hit under a $70-million cap, approximately what’s expected next season given the league’s record revenues.
With so few marquee free agents available on the open market, too, the trend of young restricted free agents locking up for the long haul also isn’t going anywhere, and every player agent in the league knows full well teams are soon going to be working with a cap of north of $80-million.
If the Habs balk at paying Subban, in other words, a dozen other teams will have the space and the need for his talents.
And with little to spend on, one rival GM may be desperate enough to go the offer sheet route, which is what netted Shea Weber the richest current deal for a defenceman.
It’s easy in a situation like this to simply say pay the man. This postseason has been added proof of Subban’s worth to his team, as they’re a different group with him on the ice almost shift to shift.
Making him one of the game’s highest paid blueliners may have been debatable two years ago, but not anymore, as he’s up there with netminder Carey Price in the franchise cornerstone department – and he knows it.
When Subban has been on his game in this series, the Habs have skated with the Bruins and made what many expected to be a tough matchup compelling theatre; when he’s struggled, as he did in Saturday’s loss, Boston has thoroughly controlled the play.
What’s clear is that if Montreal somehow finds a way to battle back and win in seven games, it’ll be on the back of Price and Subban more than anyone else, which only adds to the latter’s case in contract talks.
If they fall short here, however, it’ll further highlight the short-sightedness of having Subban at a low cap hit the last two seasons, when the Canadiens aren’t quite ready to contend with teams like the Bruins and the heavy hitters in the West.
The next two or three years are likely going to be their real window to win – and it’s an opening that would only be helped by having their top defenceman on the books for a couple million less.
Rangers rally around St. Louis’s heavy heart
It’s hard to imagine there’ll be a more poignant story in these playoffs than that of Marty St. Louis, who somehow managed to play a solid 16 minutes for the New York Rangers in Friday’s Game 5 a day after his mother, France, passed away unexpectedly at 63 years old.
St. Louis was to be back in the lineup on Sunday night with his father and sister in the Madison Square Garden crowd, part of an emotional Mother’s Day, as the Rangers attempted to force a Game7 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Reinvigorated after nearly fading right out of the series after an ugly Game 4 loss, New York suddenly once again looks like a threat to make things interesting if they can continue to battle back in the series.
“This is a day that’s special to me,” St. Louis said on Sunday morning, thanking his teammates for their support during a difficult week. “To have my dad and sister here, I think it helps the grieving process.”
Here’s one record set over the weekend that may never be broken: Anaheim Ducks rookie John Gibson became the youngest NHL netminder to ever record a shutout in his playoff debut.
He was all of 20 years and 330 days old when he stepped into the limelight in Saturday’s Game 4 win, earning the start in a pivotal Game 5. That pressure cooker on Monday will be just his fifth NHL game.