Wednesday, 16 January 2013

P.K. Subban playing with fans' patience

After Erik Cole's gauche sortie Saturday, it's now Penell Karl's turn to try Montréal Canadiens fans patience.  Word is that he's seeking a five or six or seven-year-deal, worth 4 no 5 no 6 no (are you kidding me!?) $7M/year.  No one really knows, but everyone has an opinion.  Some decry him as being inept in managing his public persona in this post-lockout period, of being undeserving of the demands that are bruited on social media, while others tout him as the best defenceman if not player on the team, a sure-fire future Norris Trophy winner, and state that a long-term deal will turn into a bargain in a couple years..

One unfortunate consequence of the salary cap system in the National Hockey League is that it transforms committed fans into vigilant custodians of the team's payroll.  Whereas before fans would harry their team's ownership to pay whatever it costs to retain the hometown stars, nowadays fans are forced to take a stand on the wage a player will receive, as overspending on players decreases the likelihood that one's team will be successful and championship material.  In the days of the Guy Lafleur or Larry Robinson holdouts, every fan howled that the team made enough money to pay these guys what they wanted, and that they sure as hell deserved it.  Especially if Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson are worth millions to the Rangers...

So I'm now, as a fan who can't resist the pull of NHL hockey, forced to care how big P.K.'s paycheque will be.  And I unfortunately have to side with Canadiens' General Manager Marc Bergevin on this one.  He's trying to install a salary system whereby players entering their third pro contract, on the eve of their Unrestricted Free Agent years, get rewarded by receiving long-term security, as Carey Price and Max Pacioretty did this summer.  Players who haven't reached that level of seniority have to graduate to more modest contracts and prove themselves.  Mr. Bergevin is trying to clean up the financial mess left behind by the previous régime, and he realizes that cap flexibility is gold in the current NHL.

P.K. is a fine young man with oodles of talent and charisma, the Canadiens are his boyhood favourite team and he wants to be here, he can play with skill and toughness, he played the most minutes of any Canadiens last season, at even-strength against the opponent's top line, and on special teams.  Guys like that are hard to find.  As tempted as we might be to bend the rules in his case, we have to mind the veritable peacock's tail of red flags he carries around.  His sometimes irritating loquaciousness do not make him a unanimously beloved denizen of the dressing room.  His tendency, mentioned in hushed tones to the journalists who cover the Canadiens, to go against team rules, also grate.  There's his apparent resistance to coaching, as demonstrated by his run-ins with coaches.  There are also run-ins with teammates on practice ice.  His insistence on rocketing wild, skull-high slapshots off the glass on powerplay make his teammates cringe.  His resolve to start trouble on the ice last season, paired with his infrequent instances of finishing what he started, must have worn on Josh Gorges, Hal Gill, Travis Moen, and whoever else had to come in and fight his battles.

Another point to bear in mind is that P.K. was the best and most used defenceman on the team last year by default, because Andrei Markov was injured and we traded away Ryan McDonagh, and we let Mark Streit and James Wisniewski and Sheldon Souray walk in free agency.  While he is undeniably talented, if we hadn't stripmined all of our talent on the blue line in the last five years, he would have been called up from Hamilton and assumed a third-pairing role, and then slowly increased his minutes and responsibility.  Just because we didn't have a #1 defenceman last season doesn't mean he inherits the crown and fat paycheque by squatters' rights.  That's the kind of thinking that makes Leafs fans proclaim Nikolai Antropov and Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn as surefire superstars.

We also have to wonder about Mr. Bergevin's mindset in this shortened season.  Is he going in thinking playoffs and a couple of rounds are possible, or does he see this as a rebuilding year?  If it's the latter, any leverage P.K. might think he holds vanishes, for his absence from the lineup allows the team to evaluate the other youngsters like Yannick Weber, Raphaël Diaz and Alexei Emelin, to display Tomas Kaberle so as to increase his trade value at the deadline, as well as jockey for drafting position for next summer.

So as badly as I want P.K. to sign and be in uniform on Saturday and for us all to be a happy family, I want even more for Mr. Bergevin to show resolve and prudence and not upset the applecart, and shackle the team with another long-term contract on the basis of promise and potential.  I want P.K. to get his millions, but in due time, and if it means he sits out for a while longer, and we miss seeing play a couple games or even a dozen, then so be it.  We're building for the long-term here, we just got out of the Scott Gomez mess, let's not jump into any more 'entangling alliances' unless really necessary.

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