Great entertainers always have uncanny timing.
A few hours after his representatives met with the Montreal Canadiens to open contract talks last Tuesday, defenceman P.K. Subban delivered his finest all-around outing of the NHL season.
Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he played more than 28 minutes – according to extraskater.com, in his 22 minutes at even strength the Habs generated 17 shots on net (Subban had eight on the night), gave up 11, and allowed no goals.
Over the remaining 27 even-strength minutes in the game, they had three shots and allowed 24 including one that went in the net.
How much are individual performances like that worth?
The Habs will soon find out, it's likely $8-million (U.S.) or more per year.
The Tampa game, a shootout loss for the Habs, illustrated why Subban is a unique commodity: no other defenceman brings quite the same combination of rise-out-of-your-seat offensive dynamism, punishing physicality and defensive intelligence.
Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings comes closest, followed by another player who spent his youth in the Toronto area playing against Subban: St. Louis Blues rearguard Alex Pietrangelo.
Doughty signed an eight-year, $56-million contract in 2011; Pietrangelo signed a seven-year, $45.5-million contract before this season.
The knock on Subban is he doesn't play heavy minutes and is risky defensively, but in the 81 minutes 3 seconds he's played since being taken to task by head coach Michel Therrien after a loss to Colorado on Nov. 2, Subban has been on the ice for two goals against at even strength.
You'd like him to show he can be airtight in his own end? Okay. Also want him lead the team in scoring? He can do that, too.
What he can't or won't do is talk about his contract.
"At this point in the season, where we're struggling to get wins, it's probably the last thing you want to be talking about as a player … it's got to be about the team right now," Subban said before a team flight to Columbus on Thursday.
Subban's irrepressible, though. At one point, he said of Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin, "he's a good-looking guy, he's a smart guy," waited a beat, and added: "I think he would say the same thing about me."
The 24-year-old will be an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent next summer, which gives the team some minor leverage, but however you chop it up, this is going to get expensive.
Subban's making $3.75-million this year, and can expect to at least double that.
Unlike Doughty and Pietrangelo (who share Subban's agent, Don Meehan), he will be on his third NHL contract, so the Habs will be buying up more years of free agency.
The latest speculation is the league salary cap will increase $5-million or so next season – with seven or eight players to sign the Habs budget will be tight.
Long-term deals are now capped at eight years, and while the dollars are generally lower than prelockout levels, there are exceptions.
Kris Letang signed for maximum term and $58-million, Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin did likewise for $76-million – Subban's uniform number is 76, that's surely too rich for the Habs' blood.
However, there's an argument that not only is Subban more valuable than Letang, he should be the top-paid defenceman in the league.
Before you roll your eyes, consider the numbers:
Subban is fourth in goals among full-time defencemen since 2010 (Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators is first), seventh in points, and at or near the top in advanced statistics such as Fenwick and Corsi.
Of his contemporaries, only Erik Karlsson (who signed a seven-year, $45-million deal with the Ottawa Senators before the last lockout) won the James Norris Memorial Trophy before his fourth NHL season.
Comparing salaries is tricky because of the disparity between pre- and post-lockout terms, but Weber is the league's highest-earning defenceman at an average annual value of $7.8-million. Ryan Suter ($7.5-million with the Minnesota Wild) and Letang come next.
Subban is stronger defensively and more durable than Letang or Karlsson, and more creative offensively than Weber, Suter or Pietrangelo.
While you might think Suter, who leads the NHL in ice time, and Weber, a 2014 Team Canada Olympic team shoo-in, are far ahead of Subban, the numbers show they weren't at the same stage of their careers.
Suter was three years older when he became a full-time NHL player, and in his fourth season averaged 24:15 per game (Subban averages 24:42) – the main difference is Subban scored 16 more goals and 41 more points in his first three seasons. He has also scored more points than Weber or Letang at the same stage – both topped 50 points in their fourth year, Subban is on pace to score 73.
Bergevin may point out Subban plays fewer minutes and sees less of the penalty kill than comparable players; Meehan can always retort that's a question of coach's preference rather than ability.
The Habs knew when they pressed Subban into taking a bridge contract last year that he could cost more down the road.
They shouldn't worry unduly; he has shown he's worth it.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the following correction: In Tuesday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Montreal Canadiens allowed 24 shots at even strength when defenceman P.K. Subban was not on the ice, not 34 as was originally stated.
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