The reaction in Montreal to P.K. Subban signing an eight-year, $72-million contract extension with the Canadiens Saturday afternoon was a combination of relief and elation: relief that the ticking time bomb of arbitration had been defused after Friday’s hearing had concluded in tight jaws and terse words; and elation that their star defenseman would return to the fold happy and secure.
Now that the smoke is clearing, two things are apparent: firstly, that Habs GM Marc Bergevin deserves credit for backing away from the abyss and coming to his senses before it was too late. Had he waited another day and allowed the arbitrator’s verdict to be rendered, who knows what bitterness would’ve lingered between the two parties and where that would’ve led.
But it’s also clear Bergevin’s 2012 gamble with Subban on a short-term, “bridge deal” has not paid off for him. In fact, it held him upside-down by the ankles and shook free more money and salary cap space than the franchise would’ve needed to utilize had the Canadiens invested on a longer-term deal two years ago.
You want to know why the Maple Leafs invested five years and $20.25 million in Jake Gardiner last week, and why so many teams sign their youngsters coming out of their entry level deals to long-term deals? This is why. Longer-term gambles are cheaper gambles. And if things don’t work out on one of those longer-term contracts, GMs usually can find a team to take the underachieving player off their hands. That’s because rivals always think they can tweak a player’s game and help him realize the promise that made his first team invest in him.
But that's not what happened with Subban. All he did after Montreal gave him a two-year, $5.75-million deal two years ago was deliver on every count: he improved in each year; he won a Norris Trophy; he emerged as a leader and a frontrunner to take over the captaincy from Buffalo-bound Brian Gionta; and last spring, he proved he could deliver in the playoffs as a near point-per-game player (14 points in 17 games).
In other words, Subban didn’t just win this bet with Bergevin. He won it running away.
Would it have been possible to get Subban’s name on a five-year, $25-million contract after the NHL lockout ended in early 2013? You’d better believe it. He was making $875,000 in the final year of his rookie contract and was still honing his game. A four-to-six-year deal would’ve given him a tremendous raise, bought out some of those unrestricted free agent years and still allowed him to sign another massive contract at age 28 or 29.
Instead, the Habs now have to pay much more, much sooner. Yes, the cap ceiling will rise and reduce the amount of space Subban’s deal takes up, but Bergevin’s process with one of his young stars has hurt his team’s flexibility. He’s had a strong run as a young GM, but Bergevin burned his hand on the stove this time. He saved himself some money in the short-term, but nobody much cares for or remembers that anymore. All they’ll remember is that, while it’s great he didn’t allow the situation to backslide into open acrimony, Bergevin’s risk-reward policy didn’t pay off.
Veteran gamblers understand the house usually wins. But Bergevin learned the hard way: when it comes to player contracts, the players are the house. The league's collective bargaining agreement is designed to make teams project and make tough decisions on elite young players earlier than ever.
By opting for that bridge deal, Bergevin tried to delay that process by two years. You'd hope that, as the ink dries on Subban's new deal, he realizes why that was a mistake.