Defenseman P.K. Subban is a desirable restricted free agent, but the Canadiens are not an easy franchise to raid. (Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
Among the most buzz-y stories this week has been the plight of Pernell Karl Subban, the Canadiens' restricted free agent defenseman who remains unsigned. It's worth questioning, however, if this story is worth all the buzz, although almost everything involving P.K. grabs the hockey world by the lapels and screams for attention, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The way this story has been reported, or at least repeated, is that the Habs have offered P.K. a two-year deal for $5.5 million that he has rejected. Subban is supposedly "unhappy" and "negotiations have hit a roadblock" according to one content provider, and he's "very far away" from reaching an agreement, according to another. More than one blogger (OK, here's one) has called for their favorite team to extend the 23-year-old an RFA offer sheet, certain that he'd be the answer to its blueline problems. This talk of Subban becoming an offer sheet target for general managers seeking defensemen spread to the XM Satellite Radio on Friday morning, with hosts and guests very curious as to why no team has gone after him.
Had the Flyers not extended an offer sheet to Shea Weber last month, the chatter about snaring another team's RFA would hardly be as prevalent. The experience wouldn't be that fresh in our collective minds. But the lessons of Weber and all RFA signings -- which GMs understand well -- haven't resonated much for some reason.
Here's the thing: Teams don't sign RFAs to offer sheets very much because they tend not to achieve the desired result. The player's original team invariably matches the offer and, as we saw with Weber's situation, there are only hard feelings between the clubs and maybe even some between the player and his team. The only thing RFA offer sheets accomplish under the current CBA is that another team ends up negotiating a contract for a player it ultimately doesn't sign.
Seven offer sheets have been signed since the current labor deal went into effect after the 2004-05 lockout: Vancouver's Ryan Kesler by the Flyers in 2006, Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Anaheim's Dustin Penner by the Oilers in 2007, St. Louis's David Backes by the Canucks in 2008, Vancouver's Steve Bernier by the Blues in 2008, Chicago's Niklas Hjalmarsson by the Sharks in 2010, and Weber this summer. Six of the sheets were matched. Only Penner changed teams, at the cost of Edmonton's top three draft picks in 2008. He didn't consistently sparkle as an Oiler and was subsequently dispatched to the Kings while still playing out his five-year, $21.5 million contract.
Usually, a team with an offer sheet preys on a club that has some sort of financial issue. The Ducks had salary cap problems and that's why they lost Penner. The Sharks' raid on the Blackhawks for Hjalmarsson came about because Chicago also had cap issues; they kept the defenseman but had to trade others. The wealthy Flyers went after Weber believing that Nashville lacked the financial resources to match. Those sorts of moves only result in making people angry.
The ill will these deals created shouldn't be forgotten. Oilers GM Kevin Lowe and then-Ducks GM Brian Burke exchanged insults over Lowe's RFA signings and their feud threatened to erupt into fisticuffs, the tensions between them not easing for years. The big market Canucks' raid on the small market Blues so antagonized St. Louis president John Davidson by raising the price he had to pay to keep Backes that J.D. retaliated by signing Bernier to an offer sheet immediately afterward, which the Canucks matched.
It sure makes for entertaining reading and reporting, but GMs sometimes have to work together. Two who are feuding aren't going to be so willing to dive into trade talks with each other. On top of that, team execs and owners have to co-exist as well, because they or their representatives sit on the NHL Board of Governors and oversee all sorts of things for the good of the game and the advancement of the business. They don't like it when one of their compadres drives up their expenses.
All that comes in addition to what teams have to surrender by way of draft picks if the player does transfer clubs. The bottom line is that RFA offer sheets usually are more trouble than they're worth. For the Flyers, the chance to get one of the game's best defensemen to fill Chris Pronger's vacancy was worth the gamble. But it failed. And as good and exciting as P.K. Subban is, he's not -- at least not yet -- a Shea Weber.
Let's get back to Subban here: Any team that would consider signing him to an offer sheet has to know that 1) the Canadiens are hardly an impoverished franchise and 2) they don't have salary cap problems. So the chances the Habs would match are very good. In fact, even without speaking to Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, I think it's safe to say that he wouldn't let P.K. go elsewhere -- especially because an offer sheet for Subban isn't likely to be as remotely lucrative as the Flyers' proposed deal for Weber. Since the theoretical compensation coming back to the Habs wouldn't be comparable to the four first round draft picks that Philly would have given the Preds, Bergevin would just sniff derisively, grouse a bit, phone Canadiens president Geoff Molson to get the O.K. and then match the offer. So what would be the point of it all?
Now, let's look a bit more closely at what we know -- not what people are writing -- about the negotiations between the Canadiens and Subban's agents at Newport Sports. First, while some are looking at the calendar and saying that a deal should have been done by August, the fact is that Newport head Don Meehan told Quebec television network TVA a week ago that the two sides only began haggling over P.K.'s new deal during the prior week. That's not an especially long time for a high-profile player coming out of entry-level, so to say that the sides are at an impasse so quickly misunderstands how contracts get done. Considering the relatively short time frame, most likely what is being reported is the Habs' first offer, not their final one.
And was the reported offer really the offer P.K. nixed? Mark Guy, the Newport Sports agent who is handling P.K.'s negotiations, denied that the two-year, $5.5 million report was accurate, telling TVA, "I won't discuss (the terms) publicly. What I can say, however, is that negotiations are ongoing and that the information reported is not accurate." Guy added, "I do not see how we could have reached an agreement (with the Canadiens) in so short a time. These discussions are difficult and time-consuming to complete."
A few observers have remarked that $2.25 million per year isn't enough for Subban, but the main hang-up, according to RDS, seems to be that P.K. wants more than a two-year contract, not the money. It doesn't appear as if he's disenchanted with being a Hab and anxious to go elsewhere. In fact, Meehan told TVA on July 20 that he hadn't had any conversations with other clubs about an offer sheet for Subban. That likely hasn't changed for all the reasons outlined above.
Eventually, Bergevin and Newport Sports will hammer out something and Subban, who one blogger called, "the pernicious face of the Montreal Canadiens," will again be antagonizing NHL opponents on behalf of the bleu, blanc et rouge at an arena near you next season.
The original Blasters, one of my favorite groups, did a great version of that '50s song written by Leiber & Stoller in the 1984 film Streets of Fire and they've sung it ever since, like here in their most recent reunion tour in 2010
Here's how it looked in the film, along with their other track from the film, "Blue Shadows."
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