BROSSARD, Que. — P.K. Subban was still wearing his playoff beard as he answered questions about what may be a summer-long story about his contract negotiations.
Since signing a two-year "bridge" deal that paid him US$3.75 million this season, the 25-year-old, who has become one of the NHL’s best and most entertaining defencemen, is a potential restricted free agent in position to ink a multi-year contract for a king’s ransom with the Montreal Canadiens.
Or he could take a shorter contract and then become an unrestricted free agent.
Subban said he hopes to sign a long-term deal and to stay in Montreal his entire career.
"I’m sure everybody in hockey wants a long-term contract, but for me, it’s not just about that," he said. "It’s about being part of a team that can win a championship, and I believe we have that in this dressing room.
"When it comes to contract stuff, that’s why I hire my agent (Don Meehan). That’s why we pay him. That’s his job and I’ll let him do his job. I’ve done mine, and he’ll do his."
The Canadiens, coming off their second trip to the Eastern Conference final in four years, gathered at their suburban training centre to clear out lockers and begin exit interviews before splitting up for the off-season.
Their better-than-expected run to the third round of playoffs ended on Thursday with a 1-0 loss to the Rangers in New York.
"Right now, the season just ended 48 hours ago," said Subban. "It feels weird cleaning out my stall.
"I’m just still trying to enjoy the last couple of days with my teammates before going home. Enjoy the summer with my family. So, I haven’t put much thought into (a new contract) as of right now, but obviously during the summer it’s something that will get taken care of."
General manager Marc Bergevin, who will talk to the media only on Monday, has a heap of contracts to settle, but none will be watched with quite the rapt attention of Subban’s.
During his bridge deal, the Toronto native won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and followed with a career-best 53-point campaign in which he had 24:36 of ice time per game, second on the team to rearguard Andrei Markov.
He also helped Canada win gold at the Sochi Olympics in February, although he was cast as the extra defenceman on a talent-packed team due to management’s doubts about defensive lapses.
Where Subban sits on the scale of NHL stars, or of top defencemen, is much debated.
Among his Olympic teammates, Shea Weber is signed through 2020-21 by Nashville for an average of $7.8 million per season, Drew Doughty is with Los Angeles until 2018-19 at $7.0 million, while Chicago’s Duncan Keith will make only $5.5 million until 2020-21.
The one he is often compared with is Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who is earning $6.5 million per year through 2018-19.
But with the salary cap expected to rise steadily in coming years, the scale may now he higher for a player of Subban’s skill and star power. And there’s always the possibility that another team (Toronto perhaps?) makes him a spectacular offer that the Canadiens would have the right to match.
Asked if he feels he has reached elite status among NHL defenders, Subban said it is for others to decide.
"I don’t control what people say and what category people put me in," he sad. "All I can control is trying to help my team win hockey games and a championship.
"That’s my goal. But in terms of what people say about me. There are always critics. There are always people that are going to characterize yourself, your game. That’s not for me to do."
Two other restricted free agents who are likely to be much easier to sign are Lars Eller, who had an excellent playoffs and who is developing into a shut-down centre, and right-winger Dale Weise, a late-season pickup who sparkled in the post-season until suffering a suspected concussion in Game 5 of the conference final.
Weise was not available to the media. And RFA Ryan White, who wasn’t used in the playoffs, has an uncertain future with the club, although he would likely be of interest to a team needing a fourth liner with grit to his game.
Markov, Thomas Vanek and captain Brian Gionta top the list of seven potential unrestricted free agents.
The tough decisions involve Markov and Gionta, who are both 35 and slowing but who are leaders on the team. Both may have to take short-term deals for perhaps less money.
Gionta, ending a five-year deal that pays $5 million per season, wants to stay.
"My family’s been here for a while," he said. "We love the city.
"We love the team and believe in the team and the direction of the team, so we’ll leave it up to (Bergevin) and my agent to take care of it."
Vanek has said all season he intends to test the free agent market. The big, gifted winger showed he can be a game-changer when at his best, but he struggled in the playoffs and ended up going from the first to the fourth lines.
"A year ago I made a decision that it will likely be my only time to pick my own team, and hopefully pick a team where I have a chance to win," said Vanek, who started the season in Buffalo and moved to the New York Islanders before being picked up at the trade deadline by Montreal. "Once you make the decision, you can’t look back.
"I loved it. It’s a market that I wasn’t used to. Overall, I have nothing but good things to say. Marc Bergevin really made me feel at home. When I had ups and downs he was always there for me. He’s a great guy. I’ll always appreciate what he did for me."
Vanek insists he wasn’t injured in the playoffs, but said he struggled once he was taken off the top unit with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty.
"I thought we were one of the best lines," he said. "Once I got taken off, I just struggled to find myself on a new line.
"I played with (Tomas Plekanec) most of the playoffs and it just didn’t work. We’re both, I believe, very good players, we’re just not on the same page. It’s just a different game."
The Canadiens may also want to keep another deadline pickup, defenceman Mike Weaver, although he is also over 35.
But it may be the end in Montreal for potential UFAs Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray and enforcer George Parros.
"I’d like to keep playing, but we’ll see what happens," said 38-year-old Bouillon.
While much of the talk was of who would and would not be back, the mood was upbeat. The Canadiens were expected to battle just to make the playoffs, but ended up with a 100-point regular season and a trip to the conference finals.
They have a young core of Subban, Pacioretty, pesky winger Brendan Gallagher, skilled 20-year-old Alex Galchenyuk, goalie Carey Price and a few promising young defencemen that suggest they can become a Cup contender.
"I think we have an excellent opportunity," said Price, who injured a knee in the opening game of the conference final. "We came just a little bit short, so we’ll need to find ways to improve somehow.
"We didn’t win, so we have to get better. How that is we’ll have to evaluate over the summer. Each player individually is going to have to figure out a way to get 10 per cent better. It might not even be that much, it might be one per cent better. But we’re going to have to improve somehow."