During his first press conference after the NHL lockout was settled, Montreal Canadiens General Manager Eric Bergevin stated signing restricted free agent Defenseman P.K. Subban was the team’s top priority. Well…since it is highly unlikely Subban will be signed and on ice for the Habs home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, signing Subban immediately may not be as urgent a need as Bergevin lead everyone to believe. And why should it be?
With or without Subban, the Canadiens are not even close to contending for the Stanley Cup during this lockout shortened season. Even in the best case over-achievement scenario, the Habs should be battling for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
For the most part, this is the same Canadiens team which sank to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings in 2011-12. Sure, 33 year old defenseman Andrei Markov returns healthy after an injury free stint in Russia during the lockout. A healthy Markov will help, but not really enough to put this team anywhere near the top.
The immediate need for the Canadiens is on offense, however, the team did little to address this concern during the offseason. The Habs did acquire journeyman RW Colby Armstrong and bruising LW Brandon Prust, both of whom are not expected to suddenly start filling up the net at this point of their careers. It is somewhat difficult to get too excited about a couple of fourth line guys when most of the other front line players also have difficulty finding the net.
Rookie C Alex Galchenyuk is promising, but during this shortened rebuilding season, it would not be wise for the Habs to keep him with the big club for more than six games, thus wasting a year on his entry level contract (ELC). After an early look at the promising rookie, Galchenyuk should be sent back down to the Sarnia Sting.
This gets us back to the point of Subban and the alleged high priority to sign him. Apparently, with a team that really is not going anywhere this season, there is no urgency to sign Subban. And this is just one reason why the Habs are dragging their feet.
Secondly, the team does not want to set a precedent by giving away the house to a player who has played only two full seasons in the NHL. Subban does have the potential and talent to be one of the top five two-way blueliners in the game, but he is not there yet. And there is no guarantee that he will get there.
Offering Subban a large contract without having him pay his dues for a couple more years can create a very toxic environment in the locker room. With a new, albeit recycled coach, and new GM this season, this may not be a road the front office wants to head down; especially considering the destructive drama which has played out with the team the past few seasons.
Finally, the most important reason why the Canadiens are in no hurry to throw a long term big money deal at Subban is because they do not need him to sell out the Bell Centre. As an example, two days before the start of the season, fans started lining up outside at 6:30 a.m. in -15C degree weather to watch a two period scrimmage free of charge. The doors for the shortened practice game opened at 5:30 p.m.
And since Subban will not be playing in the scrimmage, the frozen masochists are definitely not lining up to see him. Yeah, it must be the free hot dogs and chips the team is also offering to make sure the fans build up a thirst, so they can purchase the overpriced, stale and awful tasting beer.
The Canadiens should take a hard line against Subban, because as it stands, Subban needs the Habs more than they need him. Such is the reality of playing with a team which can easily sell out their arena with a perennially mediocre team, thus providing them with little financial incentive to field a winning club. If Subban refuses to accept a three year deal for about $4.5M per year, it may be best to trade him.
Last week Subban stated the contract situation is out of his control because he cannot offer himself a contract. Nonsense. What is totally in his control is demanding a reasonable contract which is in line with his limited NHL experience. And until Subban decides to do that, the Habs should continue to leave him dangling.