Despite the reservations of some Canadiens fans, we give full marks to Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin for the vision he displayed in locking down RFA center Lars Eller ahead of arbitration on Thursday.
Eller's four-year, $14 million deal was a bit of a surprise, especially the generosity of the agreement's last two seasons, in which the Danish forward will earn $4.25 and $4.75 million, respectively. It's a big show of faith in a player who scored just 12 goals and 28 points in 77 games in 2013–14. But it's also a sign that Bergevin has a keen understanding of market realities.
If there's one lesson to be learned from the trade and free-agency markets this summer, it's that centers are becoming hockey's answer to lefthanded pitching. If you can do the job, you are in high demand and you're going to get paid. A lot. And Eller, who followed up his soft regular season with a solid playoff performance, is someone worth betting on. Especially for a team without a true No. 1 in the middle.
That's not to say that Eller is being groomed for the first-line gig. There's still too much inconsistency in his offensive game to suggest he can handle that responsibility. But he has so many other attributes—the size, the skating ability, the defensive acumen, the hockey sense—that he can be a solid No. 2 or, at worst, an excellent No. 3. And as prices continue to rise for players who can effectively fill those roles (the Islanders gave Mikhail Grabovski $20 million over four years earlier this month), Eller's deal is likely to be viewed as a solid and insightful investment down the road.
Now that Bergevin has established his bona fides as a financial visionary, it's time for him to hammer out the most important contract any Eastern Conference GM will sign this summer.
We're talking, of course, about P.K. Subban and what's sure to be the most lucrative deal in franchise history. One that will likely bring the defenseman $10 million a season—or more—at some point during the agreement.
(We'll pause here a moment while the no-player-is-worth-that crowd get all the vitriol out of their systems.)
A crazy amount of money? Sure is. But then Subban is a crazy, unique talent.
The 25-year-old blueliner is coming off a bridge deal that earned him $3.75 million last season with a $2.875 million cap hit. It was an absurd bargain won by Bergevin at a time when cap issues—as well as concerns about Subban's defensive play and propensity for being a loose cannon—were used to deflate the price.
Those issues aren't in play now. A Norris Trophy winner in 2013, Subban has emerged as a player without peer. A master of possession, he can take control of a game at will with his speed, courage and creativity, and in a fashion that no contemporary can match.
Subban's talent makes him the heart of the Canadiens, but it's his swagger that makes him the team's soul. He's not just a player. He's an entertainer, a throwback to the days of Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt. Subban may be Ontario-born, but he's a Flying Frenchman through and through.
His defensive play has matured. And so has he. The unflagging team-first spirit he displayed with Team Canada in Sochi while being relegated to the press box demonstrated his commitment to winning above all else. He's still learning how to make all the right sacrifices, but the willingness is there.
All those elements combine to make him the most irreplaceable player in the organization, and that's why his next contract should reflect that. Carey Price is a terrific goalie, and after his performance in Sochi, he now ranks among the very best in the world. But there are always capable goalies to be had, and Montreal has a pretty decent heir apparent in its system in Memorial Cup-winner Zach Fucale.
There's nobody else like Subban in the pipeline. Or anywhere else in the NHL, for that matter.
Subban and the Bergevin are scheduled to meet in front of an arbitrator on Aug. 1, but it won't get to that point. Bergevin may draw it out a few more days, but he's proven his understanding of the market. Going by the Eller deal, the GM is about to make Subban a member of the Canadiens for life. And a very rich man.