Subban negotiating with larger plan at work

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Hugh Burrill to talk about the Montreal Canadiens and defenceman P.K. Subban heading to arbitration.

TORONTO — The Montreal Canadiens arrived here with more than $11-million in available cap space on their carefully constructed payroll. They were ready to make P.K. Subban the highest-paid member of the team and they were willing to buy up the prime years of his promising career with a long-term contract.

Make no mistake: Marc Bergevin came to Toronto to make a deal, not endure an arbitration hearing, and that’s why he oozed frustration after his plan went off the rails Friday.

“I’ve got nothing to say guys, so don’t ask me,” he told reporters as he left a downtown hotel.

The contract conversations with Subban’s agents from Newport Sports had stretched back to the start of last season. There were face-to-face meetings through the winter and more focused discussions as Friday’s hearing approached. It was all supposed to culminate with a round of handshakes and smiles before the arbitrator ever walked into the room.

When it didn’t, the question heard throughout the hockey world was “What is Montreal thinking?”

The answer is that right up until the eleventh hour, they believed a resolution was at hand.

The team’s last offer was described as “significant” and clearly left Bergevin expecting that it would lead to a contract. As a rule, that’s generally how it goes with arbitration. Twenty-one of 22 scheduled hearings had already been cancelled this summer and the only thing that kept it being 22-for-22 is that Vladimir Sobotka left for Russia.

Subban’s situation was different than the others. It had been from the beginning.

There isn’t another 25-year-old in NHL history that won a Norris Trophy, Olympic gold medal and established himself as an elite player in the time it takes to play out a bridge contract. Remember that he is also just 18 months removed from the brief holdout that produced his last deal (a team-friendly $5.75-million, two-year contract).

Even without access to the specific numbers being discussed during this week’s negotiations, it isn’t very difficult to pinpoint why the gap between the sides couldn’t be closed.

This is the first contract of its kind under the new collective bargaining agreement. Deals to comparable players Drew Doughty ($7-million AAV), Alex Pietrangelo and Erik Karlsson (both $6.5-million) were signed under the last agreement and covered mostly the cheaper restricted free agent years of their careers.

What the Canadiens were proposing was a maximum eight-year deal that would have included six of Subban’s unrestricted seasons, which are much more difficult to quantify. To do so you need to project where the salary cap is going and, while everyone in the industry agrees that it’s going to climb, agents are bound to view the future more optimistically than GMs.

It is also expected that top players will be paid more under a CBA that includes term limits on contracts, but the market hasn’t really been established yet. This is new ground.

Subban views himself as a top player and anyone who saw him carve up the Boston Bruins in the second round of the playoffs would have a tough time arguing with that notion. It is believed that he has a number in mind that he wants to earn and that underscores the most important point of all: Subban didn’t feel any pressure to bend in these negotiations.

He stuck to his guns.

If anything, that appears to be what caught his employers off-guard. The spectre of the unpleasant arbitration process is usually enough to get players and teams to move off their demands and come together. That didn’t happen here.

Like Bergevin, Subban clearly didn’t enjoy Friday’s four-hour hearing — he looked and sounded emotionally drained afterwards — but the player and his agents recognize that they’re in position to grab more leverage over time, especially if he keeps performing at a high level.

A one-year arbitration award will leave the defenceman just one year shy of unrestricted free agency.

There is clearly a larger plan at work here.

It is not the sort of strategy that everyone could comfortably employ, but if there’s anyone that can handle this it’s Subban. After all, it is his unwavering confidence and ability to block out distractions that makes him perfectly suited to play in Montreal.

What remains to be seen is if any lingering bad feelings from the arbitration process will persist. Subban seemed to strike an ominous tone when he said “decisions were made today in relation to both of our positions and ultimately we have to live with those decisions.”

However, everyone involved knows that more decisions lie ahead.

Negotiations can be difficult, especially when you have so many people on both sides of the table that are skilled at handling them. The Habs were willing to open their wallets wide, but there was obviously a limit to how far they were comfortable going. They are thinking about others that will need extensions down the line and want to maintain some flexibility under the cap.

Subban wants to be paid like one of the top players in the game. It’s only a matter of time before that happens, one way or another.

An arbitrator is going to award him a healthy raise by Sunday afternoon and that’ll leave him about 700 days away from unrestricted free agency.

Plenty of time, in other words, for Montreal to take another serious run at getting Subban’s signature on a long-term deal.