PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The rollercoaster ride that was the P.K. Subban negotiations came to a surprising end Saturday afternoon when Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin announced the team had come to terms with No. 76 on an eight-year extension. The newly-inked contract—the priciest in Canadiens history—comes at a $9 million annual cap hit, totaling a whopping $72 million.
Despite the excitement and buzz surrounding Subban’s return to the Habs, one can’t help but question the expensive price tag associated with this long-term deal. Debate continues whether Subban possesses the two-way game expected of an elite defenseman. Comments on social media suggest this contract makes Subban the most overvalued player in the NHL.
Certainly, $9 million is a lot of money, and it can be somewhat mind-boggling to consider a person being paid that much to play a game. But hockey is a business—a multi-million-dollar one at that—and behind every successful business there are high-paid employees, especially in the world of sports. Subban is no exception to that.
With that being said, was it worth it for Montreal to take this leap of faith and commit to Subban for the bulk of his prime? Let’s take a look at the bigger picture.
What does Subban mean to the Montreal Canadiens?
It’s difficult to quantify exactly what a player means to a team. Every player brings something a little different to the table.
For Subban, there’s no question the offensive game is his strong point.
Anyone who follows Subban knows what a privilege it is to watch this young man glide through the neutral zone. He is arguably one of, if not the best puck-carrying defenseman in the league. His ability to go from one end of the rink to the other in the blink of an eye is an asset any team would love to have. Subban’s speed allows him to take calculated risks in the offensive zone. His shot, vision and knack for reading the play are all qualities that make him so dangerous every time he steps onto the ice.
Of course, with the positives come the negatives. Subban has faced more than his share of criticism. That’s par for the course when you play in such a hockey-crazed city.
The 25-year-old has often been said to be too fancy, undisciplined and have a flair for the dramatic; not to mention the “defensive liability” label he’s carried around throughout his budding NHL career.
Despite his strong ability to hit, block shots and defend effectively, the perception still remains Subban is only good for one thing: offense. What people sometimes overlook, however, is when a player sustains offensive zone time and dominates puck possession—as Subban often does—you do not need to defend.
“Saying we’re playing great defense isn’t exactly a compliment because it means you don’t have the puck and that means you can’t play offense. You can talk about offensive D-men not playing well defensively, but they don’t have to because they’re always on offense. That’s my view.
We’re in our zone too much, sitting on our heels worrying about guys on the other team when we should be attacking. We’re caught up trying to shut down stars, but stars take chances and they cheat so I think it’s an opportunity to attack and we’re not doing it.” – Max Pacioretty
Hockey analysts have only recently incorporated this way of thinking into their player and team evaluations. After much research, it has been determined by the advanced statistics hockey community that Corsi—a tool used to measure shot attempts, including blocked shots, missed shots and shots on goal—is an accurate predictor of success rate. In large sample sizes, high Corsi ratings have been found to be indicative of strong puck possession, sustained pressure and positive goal differential.
How does this all relate to Subban?
Throughout the course of his four-year career, Subban has upheld an impressive Corsi percentage relative to his team’s score—and according to ExtraSkater.com, has done so with low-quality teammates. His ability to maintain strong possession numbers has helped the Canadiens in leaps and bounds. Not only has Montreal controlled the pace of play at even strength with No. 76 on the ice, but the team has been able to dominate the opponent in the category that counts the most—and that is goals.
At first glance, the data set shown above looks like a jumble of numbers thrown together in a table, but it is much more than that. The statistics presented compare and contrast Subban’s on-ice goal stats from the past three seasons to defensemen who have either been nominated for the Norris Trophy, are considered elite at their position or have comparable contracts to the Habs’ star defenseman. The data also touches on how their teammates’ even-strength goal stats (TM) are affected when each player is off the ice. This is significant as it helps to quantify an individual player’s impact on his respective team.
When solely focusing in on individual goal stats, Subban’s goals for (GF60) and goals against (GF60) per 60 minutes are nothing to write home about. In fact, his stats are virtually average compared to his elite defensemen counterparts. These stats do not represent the impact a player has on their team, however.
Team make-up plays a gigantic role in influencing a player’s even-strength data. For instance, Drew Doughty—a player often deemed to be the better version of Subban—has been touted as a strong puck-carrying defenseman with good offensive upside. Even his defensive game has been said to be sound.
Upon analyzing the data, Doughty has a 1.91 goals against average per 60 minutes since the 2011-12 season. It’s definitely an impressive stat—and if your team is only allowing 1.91 goals per game at even strength, you’re doing pretty well for yourself—but one has to ask how much of that is a function of the L.A. Kings’ strong overall defensive game? Surprisingly, when Doughty’s off the ice, his team does indeed score fewer goals (2.05), but it also allows fewer (1.84). The Kings’ goal differential is actually slightly stronger without Doughty than with him 5-on-5. By no means is this meant to downplay what Doughty brings to the table, but it makes you think a bit when these numbers are presented.
On the other hand, Subban affects the Canadiens much more positively. Not only does Montreal score a lot more when he’s on the ice, but his goals against average (GA60) leaves his critics scratching their heads. When Subban’s on the ice, Montreal allows 2.11 goals against per 60 minutes of even-strength play—an average lower than that of his teammates’ 2.22 goals against average without Subban. If he’s such a defensive liability, why does the team allow fewer goals when he is on the ice?
The answer is, in the grand scheme of things, Subban’s not a liability.
Sure, Subban makes his share of mistakes and ill-advised pinches. Sometimes he leaves fans cursing their television screens, or calling for him to be benched. Every player makes guffaws, though. Subban’s just happens to be more magnified.
Statistically, Subban improves his team dramatically. Among the 12 elite defensemen in the table above, he was found to have bettered his team’s even-strength goal differential the most (plus 6.5 percent).
One thing to keep in mind is this table does not include zone starts and quality of competition, which are both areas that affect goal differential. Subban has in fact faced slightly above average competition in moderately sheltered zone starts.
Nonetheless, Subban’s job is to provide offense while maintaining a respectable level of defense, and he has done just that.
Even-strength goal differential helps shed light on Subban’s performance. It’s not a perfect formula, but in large sample sizes such as this one, it gives fans a good idea of how much a player means to his team. Needless to say, Subban means a lot to the Montreal Canadiens.
Still, P.K.’s cap hit will be greater than any defenseman in the league by next season. Does all this really make him worth the money he’s about to make? To lay this question to rest, one needs to be aware of how the cap is likely to evolve over the next several years.
The Rising Cap
After the 2012-2013 lockout ended January 6, 2013, fans were ecstatic. Despite all the stress, anger and frustration the CBA negotiations caused, hockey was finally back, and that was all that really mattered.
The fans were not the only ones jumping for joy by the end of it all, however. The players ultimately won what was a long standoff with the owners, and with that comes a salary cap expected to reach epic proportions.
Let me explain.
The new CBA established a 50-50 split between the NHL and NHLPA in “Hockey Related Revenues.” This means that any revenue the NHL incurs, minus any and all costs attributed to a revenue-generating activity, will be evenly distributed amongst the owners and players. In short, it was decided—and outlined in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement—that 50 percent of the profit the NHL makes off games, television deals, advertising, etc. would be given to the players via the salary cap.
Due to the league’s rapid growth—and its expected continued growth—the salary cap could reach an unfathomable amount that will pay even the average players well over $3 million a year by 2022.
Here’s a rough projection of the salary cap for the next eight seasons, covering the entirety of Subban’s contract.
According to the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle, the league’s revenue grew at an average rate of 7.1 percent under the last CBA. To allow for variance—and the possibility that the NHL won’t grow substantially—revenue growth rates of five, six and seven percent have been included in the data, along with the mega $5.2-billion Rogers TV deal, which will take effect in the 2015-16 season.
The new CBA—and the expected rising salary cap—has given players with expiring contracts tremendous negotiating power. Salaries have reached new heights, massive contracts have been handed out and even the mediocre players are beginning to make more than they ever have before. The NHL has truly reached a new era in the salary cap.
Some fans can’t help but measure value by the dollar amount signed on a player’s cheque, but that scale is far from accurate. In the hockey world, value is not measured by dollars and cents. It’s measured by a player’s cap hit, and the future implications that hit may have on the team—in other words, cap-hit percentage.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane recently inked identical record-setting multi-year contracts upwards of $10 million per season. Both are being paid 121 percent more than Sidney Crosby, and will for the entirety of their eight-year contracts. Does that mean both are 121 percent better than “Sid the Kid?” Not at all — in fact, a case can be made that Crosby is better than both players.
The post-lockout dollar amount on a player’s contract is not a result of general managers suddenly deciding it’s Christmas in July. It’s not even about “player versus player” comparisons. It’s about what that player means to their team.
Subban signed a contract Saturday that made him the highest paid defenseman in the league. He is undeniably going to be a very rich young man. But, does being paid like the best mean he is the best?
It’s all relative.
Consider a team’s salary cap like a pie, with each player’s salary eating up a portion of it. A player’s talent determines what percentage of the pie he will receive, while the size of the pie is driven by the salary cap limit. These two factors—percentage (driven by player’s talent) and pie size (driven by salary cap fluctuations)—ultimately decide how big a player’s piece of the pie will be.
Percentage is something players can control. However, pie size usually comes down to luck of the draw—and is determined by whether or not that player becomes a free agent at a time when the cap is increasing substantially.
To put things in perspective, let’s take a look at a well-known veteran defenseman when he was under contract eight years ago.
Zdeno Chara has always been regarded by his peers as one of the best two-way defensemen in the game. At the age of 29, Chara—who was in his prime and poised for breakout years—inked a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Boston Bruins in 2006 at an annual cap hit of $7.5 million. In the 2006-07 season, the cap was set at a significantly lower number than it is today.
Now, what’s interesting about this deal is in Chara’s first year under contract, he took up a colossal 17 percent of his team’s salary cap space which, if applied to today’s cap, would’ve put his annual salary close to $12 million per year. It’s a somewhat mind-blowing number, but it paints a better picture of what general managers and player agents have to consider during the negotiation process.
In Subban’s first year under contract, he will take up about 13 percent of Montreal’s cap space, and that number will slowly dwindle down to about 8.8 percent by the end of the contract; that is if the league only grows at a five-percent rate. That would put Subban’s average cap hit per season at around 10.6 percent, which is in-line with elite level players.
Of course, there are cap-friendly deals better than Subban’s. For example, Duncan Keith will be making just over $5.5 million for the next nine seasons—by all means a steal for the two-time Norris Trophy winner. One thing to consider during this deal, however, is Keith will be under contract until he’s 40 and well past his prime, whereas Subban will only be 32 when his deal is up. Nonetheless, Keith’s contract is a bargain and Stan Bowman should count his lucky stars he locked up his best defenseman long-term prior to the lockout.
The P.K. Subban, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews deals only begin to scratch the surface of what elite players will start to make in this new era characterized by considerably higher cap limits.
Subban may be the highest paid defenseman in the league, but that mostly stems from his contract being one of the first among elite defensemen to expire in this post-lockout era. Subban’s deal certainly isn’t what one would call a steal, but it was a fair deal for both sides, and one that had to get done.
Letting go of a player who embraces pressure, leads by example and steps it up when it matters most would have been a huge mistake. Subban is a unique talent; one you don’t come across very often. When you find a gem, you hold onto it. Bergevin and the Canadiens held on tightly to theirs.