When I’m not rooting for the Washington Capitals I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. The storied history of the franchise interests me in a similar way to following the Yankees and Arsenal FC. It didn’t hurt that they won a Cup early on when I was still somewhat new to hockey and had a stacked team that included a flamboyant goalie who would go on to put up ridiculous numbers.
That being said, since then watching the Habs franchise is sometimes like watching a train wreck in slow motion. And, you know you should turn away, but somehow you just can’t bring yourself to it. It’s painful and intriguing at the same time.
Their latest implosion of epic proportions was trading franchise defensiveman PK Subban. PKS is one of my favorite current players and a big reason why I follow Les Habitants as closely as I do these days. He’s dynamic and exciting on the ice with a huge, giving personality off it. Unfortunately, there are some in the Habs world who have a love-hate relationship with PKS, meaning they love to hate him and it’s been that way pretty much since he broke into the NHL.
So, what did the Habs to with their star player? Oh, they traded him, of course. And, not just any trade, but one that makes them markedly worse both immediately and in the medium term. It is a terrible move by the Habs that has next to ZERO redeeming value. Not quite the fleecing that Jersey just did on the Oilers but pretty close.
First, that Montreal fans soured on the guy so quickly for no good reason. He went from being a savior to pariah seemingly overnight. He was a rookie sensation, winning the AHL President’s Award splitting time between the Habs and Hamilton Bulldogs and in his early years put up some very fine numbers, including being the first dman for the Habs to put up a hattrick in his first full season, and quickly developing into one of the most coveted franchise type dmen in the league aiming at the likes of Brian Leach, Dennis Potvin, Paul Coffey, Ray Borque in terms of two-way type of play.
One might say that this had a lot to do with the 2012-14 contract negotiations. As an RFA Subban sat out the first four games of the 2012–13 season that was already marred by the lockout while the two sides worked out an initial compromise. The short term team left him an RFA negociating again in 2013–14 and he elected arbitration as allowed by the newly created CBA. There was some warring in the press and disgruntled fans took sides. The contentious fighting eventually avoided the finality of arbitration with a two-minutes-to-midnight type of deal. The process and then the final numbers rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way and gave lots of ammunition to the press who lambasted the guy for wanting to get paid fairly.
It certainly doesn’t help that the Quebecquois hockey establishment as well as douchbags like Don Cerry don’t like him because he doesn’t play “traditional” hockey as a d-man. Breaking that “stereotype” down a bit:
PKS is a mobile guy who is very comfortable negociating the neutral zone with the puck, pinching in offensive zone, and generally being involved with the possession aspect of the play. He’s not a “stay at home” type of “blueliner” and as the league transitions away from pylons a lot of old school guys resent Dmen who break the mold of having to sit back and wait for the play to come to them, who work in their own corners using big, heavy bodies, who clear creases and block shots. Not that PKS cannot do those things, but when you are ceading the neutral zone and you aren’t waiting for the play to come back to you in your own defensive zone then you don’t have to specialize in reactive tactics. When you see the game changing in front of you it’s sometimes hard to let go of your preconceived notions of what players should do. PKS challenges that stereotype every time he stepped on the ice and it pissed a lot of traditionalists off.
In that vein, PKS is a bit of a risk-reward kind of player. Due to his ability to control the neutral zone and to pinch sometimes his ambition results in turnovers that temporarily give the opposing team an advantage. His critics point heavily to these kinds of plays as being a negative even though generally PKS corsi, fenwick and SOG numbers are exceptionally strong. Because his defensive failures come up ice instead of back he’s deemed as being “out of position” and therefore solely responsible for the outcome of the play. Giving up possession of the puck happens to every dman – however, ironically, it’s more forgivable having lost the blueline and then having lost the corner battle for possession than having turned it over up ice which generates more epic looking chances the other way even if they prove to be much less deadly. It’s the “big gaffe” view of the world that drove a lot of fans crazy.
Furthermore, although he’s a Canadian which would normally buy him some points, he’s not a good ole boy kind of Canadian – he’s from the city of Toronto. Sure, there are other Toronto natives in the league but PK was the son of immigrants and there’s every reason to believe there’s some xenophobia behind his treatment. Canada isn’t immune to being nationalistic and especially within hockey, a very traditionalistic community, it means something when you have multiple generations of a bloodline tied to your city, particularly a bloodline of hockey. Xenophobia isn’t limited to hockey. It’s a social problem to be sure, but it manifests itself in hockey because fandom is a social expression and its presence in the sport is ugly.
And, on that point, there’s every reason to believe there’s some racisim at work here as well being that PK is black and the vast majority of the rest of the hockey world, particularly the traditionalist Canadian portion of it is white. Racism isn’t limited to hockey. It’s pervasive in sports in general. And, like xenophobia it’s a social problem that has complex and deep seeded roots that manifest themselves in ugly ways in the social expression of sports fandom.
Finally, he has a personality. He can be eccentric and flashy and isn’t afraid to show he’s enjoying himself while playing hockey or functioning in the community. This rubs some people the wrong way. There are those traditionalists who feel you cannot show any emotion or individuality at all. Or, at least if you do, you can only show it in disappointment and self-criticism for failing. It is the same hollow criticism that comes to Ovechkin who’s own personality and flair has earned him an unwarranted reputation as well. It’s not limited to hockey, it’s a sports problem, but within hockey it has its own unique set of dissenters many of whom long for some iconic era of workman like skaters that never actually existed. It would be one thing if he was over-the-top for the pure sake of being that, maybe in a Dennis Rodman kind of way, or he was over-the-top but lacked the skill to back it up in a Tim Tebow or Manziel kind of way. But, no, he’s just a guy who loves playing hockey and happens to be really fucking good at it and that makes a lot of people jealous and probably uncomfortable.
Taking all these views and perceptions and biases together and it’s easy to see how PKS becomes a lightening rod despite his massive talent and on-ice accomplishments.
Second, that Montreal is bound and determined to destroy themselves as a franchise. The Front Office has made so many strange decisions over the least few years, well, decades more correctly, and taken what was finally looking to be a balanced and competitive team and hacked it apart again and again..
I’m not the biggest Therrion fan but I understand initially why he was brought on board to right the ship. However, he’s long since outlived his usefulness and between him Bergevin they’ve basically rotted the core of the franchise by dumping players who produce in favor of players who fit some type of black-boxed mold of Les Habs attitude.
This move reeks of desperation after last season fell apart in the wake of Price’s injury and last season collapsed as it did not because of Price but because of how poorly the team was constructed around him that the lack of his near super-human presence in goal basically forced them to play to their actual abilities, which, arguably aren’t that good. The team needed a scapegoat and with PKS already being a target in the press it was likely perceived as a good way to “right the ship” by dumping a guy who didn’t play their “style” of hockey regardless of if that style could actually win them anything.
Third, in NO WAY is Weber as good as Subban. Full Stop. I like Weber and would covet him at a top pair Dman on the Caps. I will enjoy him in the Red-and-White. But, he’s inferior to Subban in nearly every way no matter how you compare them. Subban is in rarified air. Elite as a playmaker. Elite as a scorer. And, more importantly Elite as a shot suppression defensivemen. And, that’s the big difference maker for me. Subban would be the #1 on nearly every single team in the league by defensive metrics while Weber isn’t even the best dman on his former team right now. And, if your a traditionalist who harps on Dmen need to be good at D, well, then Subban is your guy, without even considering the numbers he puts up in the other direction which are what he’s always been well known for. Everybody might “talk” about Weber’s Norris caliber defensive play but the deeper into the analysis you get, Subban drives the play-for so well that it subsequently also makes it that much more difficult for the other team to ever get to play offense and as the adage goes the best defense is a great offense and that’s part of why his corsi- and sog- against numbers are so good compared to Weber.
It’s a downgrade for Montreal not just in losing Subban for Webber but in how they can deploy their defensive corp overall, while, on the flipside it’s a HUGE bonus for Nashville because it actually strengthens an already formidable blue line to give them even more flexibility.
Forth, the contract “relief” the Canadians get is pretty sketchy. Let’s start with AAV here and say that 7.8 on weber is 1.2 below Suban’s 9. What’s that 1.2 buying for the Habs in reality? Certainly not anything close to what the difference between Weber and Suban are in terms of getting another player. That 1.2 being useful is contingent on it being packaged with savings elsewhere in order to get another top pairing Dman and/or a legit top-6 forward who can be impactful at fives and on the Power Play to replace the gap Subban leaving creates. Right now that 1.2 alone buys a bottom pairing Dman or bottom pairing forward who likely does neither. Weber’s contract is not exactly an albatross right now but each year that goes on where the Salary Cap remains relatively flat it tightens up around whomever is carrying it.
And that’s the next part, Weber is 3 years older than Suban. His contract runs out at 40 while Subban’s runs out at 33. So the 7.8AVV is carried on the back end of Weber’s career when he’s almost certain to underperform it while Suban’s cover’s his peak years. So, sure, it’s more money per year but the team holding it is likely extracting a much higher relative value from it too. When you look at it broken down in terms of points-per dollar Subban’s likely a better value. When you reverse it and look at it on a defensive metric like corsi-against Subban’s definitely the better value because you’re paying more to have Weber let more shot attempts go against his team.
Fifth, the Habs are probably banking on expansion next year. Weber, if I understand, can be left open on the draft, while Subban would have needed to be protected. Not sure why protecting Suban is such a bad thing for the Canadians considering who the rest of the roster is, but there’s NO ONE on the roster short of Price who is even remotely as valuable as Subban in terms of his skill set. There’s just no viable way to spin this where whomever is saved is going to ever contribute at a rate anywhere near making up the gap of what not having Subban creates. But, let’s say you see the Subban contract as an albatross and want to get rid of it now while it has value for a guy who you can leave open for the draft. Well, that presupposed that Weber would be taken in the expansion draft. There’s a couple of reasons to suspect he might be taken such as a need for veteran leadership, such as needing to hit the Cap Floor, such as needing a top-four Dman – but there’s a LOT of ifs to be had here. There’s still 8 years or so left on the Weber contract going into the draft. It’s one thing to want to hit the floor initially, it’s quite another to hamstring yourself with that salary in a couple of years when you’ll have your own RFAs to sign and will be wading heavier into the UFA market in order to get over the hump competitively. There are other guys who are still relatively high cap hits who are only going to have a year or two left on their contracts when exposed that would be much better get-to-the-floor investments. There are also going to be guys who have the leadership and SC winning experience who are on better contracts as well. That’s not to say Weber doesn’t get selected and get Montreal off the hook here, but that’s a gamble that if they lose will hurt much more than had they stayed the course with Subban.
And Finally, as good as Weber is and as much as he’s meant to Nashville he’s never been and will never be the kind of personality that Subban is. Subban, like him or not as a personality on the ice, but asses in seats all by himself. People go to see Subban play. People happen to watch Weber play. Subban sells merch both for his own brand and for the team because of the way he plays hockey. Weber just plays hockey well. Furthermore, even if you take the super-star power out of the equation Subban is one of those guys who give SO much to the community and gives so much back to hockey as an ambasator. Not that Weber doesn’t do stuff but Subban’s activities and actions are in a different stratosphere than Weber’s. What Montreal is losing isn’t just a great player but a great personality – even if it’s one that a certain vocal contingent of fans loved to hate. Weber will never match Subban’s numbers so he’ll never attain that love (because they aren’t winning a Stanley Cup anytime soon for him to gain that love). It would take Weber being worse than Scott Gomez for him to even come close to reaching the kinds of criticism that Subban gets from certain people and the thing is that criticism of Subban is part of what drives the Habs economy as much as his stellar play has done and that kind of negative feeling positive revenues situation will certainly not be there for Weber.
All around this in the immediate term is a lose for the Habs. Maybe in the mid term, on the off chance they unload the Weber contract before it does long term damage of it’s own will the Habs be able to possibly walk away feeling like it’s somehow break even (only if that 9M ends up getting them a replacement star player and not a bunch of spare parts), but chances are this will haunt the Habs in a very Patrick Roy kind of way for many, many years to come.
One can only hope they manage to right the ship before Toronto figures out how to be competitive. Can you imagine the implosion that occurs if Toronto makes a serious run before the Habs are able to?!?!