It’s become common that scheduled NHL arbitration hearings don’t actually make it that far. That’s because the process can get quite dirty, with the player’s side arguing in favor of his worth and the team’s side trying to tear down a player who they still want to employ. Qualifying a player for arbitration is still a necessary step, since it makes him ineligible to receive an offer sheet and keeps him under control of the team. But almost all of the time, contract extensions get settled before the arbitration date arrives. Ryan O’Reilly, who was thought most likely to head to judgment this summer, even signed a two-year deal with Colorado ahead of his date. Of course, the betting is still that he'll leave after that deal expires, if he isn’t traded first.
But it was P.K. Subban, coming off a bridge deal that was supposed to pave the way for an easy, if expensive, extension, who endured arbitration this season. He was the only player who experienced it, too. And when it got there, it looked as though the Canadiens and Subban would lock in to a one-year award that could have led to further relationship troubles when the Norris winner would have been one year away from unrestricted free agency next summer.
But within the 24 hours after the two sides left that hearing - as they waited on a ruling - something suddenly changed on the Montreal side. By not coming to a contract agreement beforehand, there had to have been reticence within Habs management to sign Subban a) for the long-term and/or b) to a substantial cap hit that would put him among the highest paid players in the league or at his position.
But the eight-year extension with a $9 million cap hit the two sides ended up signing gave Subban both the maximum length allowed by the CBA and made him the highest-paid NHL defenseman against the cap. His $9 million ranks behind only Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin among all NHLers. It was a bar-setter for young stars under the new CBA that will serve as a starting point for, say, Steven Stamkos, who will himself have an expiring contract after the 2015-16 season.
So what changed for the Canadiens? Why did they go through the exhausting, gut-punch of a process that arbitration is, only to go big on a Subban extension anyway?
The answer, according to the Montreal Gazette’s Jack Todd, is ownership.
Here’s a clip from Todd’s story, which actually focuses more on the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes:
(Geoff) Molson’s Canadiens are flying pretty high these days, what with a playoff run that took them into the Eastern Conference final, but Molson had to step in and make the decision to sign P.K. Subban to an eight-year, $72-million contract.
A highly place source has confirmed our theory that it was indeed Molson who overruled GM Marc Bergevin, when it appeared that the club might be saddled with a single-year arbitration contract and a disgruntled star. It was Molson’s call to sign P.K. long-term and it was exactly right.
Which doesn’t mean Bergevin was wrong. Both men were doing their jobs: Bergevin’s task is to make an evaluation based on his salary cap and his evaluation of a player’s performance. Molson has to take the wider view and consider factors like fan-base reaction that really aren’t Bergevin’s problem.
Now, this isn’t a case of a meddling owner, or one who’s lost faith in his GM. On the contrary, a meddling owner would make it a priority for a GM to throw money at grinders, to trade the No. 1 goalie, or make any other micromanaging demand. A meddling owner does damage and actually interferes with good on-ice business and team-building decisions. A meddling owner renders his GM nothing more than a puppet. Molson, apparently, involved himself for the signing of not only a Norris winner, but a player who will be an important driver of the Canadiens brand for this generation. Subban is a worthy franchise player who has proven his abilities under a team-friendly contract, so the franchise owner made peace with this process. Nothing wrong here. It's the kind of ownership the Cleveland Browns would probably love to have.
In fact, by involving himself in this contract dispute with such a renowned and integral player, Molson qualifies himself as a good owner, the kind you’d want to have stamping approval. He’s not out making contract offers to the Shawn Thorntons and Colton Orrs of the world and he wasn't assuring an extension for Brian Gionta. What Molson did with the Subban situation is the kind of ownership “meddling” you want on your side.
The alternative, a one-year reward, would have been even more risky than a long-term $72 million investment.
Molson’s involvement also doesn’t mean he has lost faith in his GM or has any profound disagreement with the way the team should be built. I mean, the two may have significant disagreements behind closed doors, but this specific event doesn’t advertise a divide in the front office.
Why not? Because, as Todd says in his last graph, Bergevin and Molson are both just doing their jobs here. Bergevin is trying to lock up his best skater to a new contract, but he also wants to get it done for the most team-friendly cap hit possible. Molson has more to consider when a young, award-winning and incredibly exciting player is up for contract. If you’re lucky, as a fan and as an owner, your team will land a generational talent like Subban. And Molson decided a bar-setting investment was worth it. If you’re a good team, you have to be spending cap space on something, so you may as well spend it on a talented player who is also, quickly, becoming a face of the entire league.
It’s not that Bergevin didn’t want to keep Subban, he was just trying to keep him at the best price possible. Molson didn’t think that was a necessary game to play this time, and since he would have to sign off on any new contract anyway, there’s nothing wrong or strange with how this went down.
Pay the man under a rising cap now, save the headache later. That’s just good business when dealing with a market-influencing player.
And you know what? By the time Subban's contract expires, it won't be the third-highest cap hit anymore. Welcome to the new world.