It's not an easy job to be the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. The only jobs that might be tougher are being the goalie, or being the coach for the Habs. Luckily for Marc Bergevin, his charisma, nice smile, and pedigree within the hockey community have kept the media almost entirely on his side.
However there are a lot of fans, in particular on this site, who aren't enthused with the job he's doing. While a lot of this resentment is carried over from his underwhelming moves in the summer, specifically regarding unrestricted free agents. Personally I'm not too enthused about both Travis Moen and Brandon Prust getting 4 year deals, although I believe the Moen contract is a tradeable one if the Canadiens wish, and I was not happy about the signing of Francis Bouillon, who I don't believe is a very useful player at this stage.
That being said, all the focus goes onto those deals, ignoring some of the excellent moves Bergevin has made as GM.
For example take Lars Eller's contract for 2 years at $1.325M a year. You couldn't ask for better value there. Eller is a 15+ goal scorer and a defensive ace at 23, and likely a top 6 forward if the org ever gives him space to grow.
Another example would be the extension for Max Pacioretty, a 30 goal scorer and 60 point player last year who looks poised to hit those marks several more times and maybe even hit higher heights. What is he worth on the open market? Certainly a lot more than the 6 year $4.5M a year contract he agreed to.
But the point here isn't to go over every move Bergevin has made and tabulate a pros and cons list, the point is how he's handled the P.K. Subban contract.
Now looking at missing a second game in a shortened season, the ever persistent rumour is that Marc Bergevin, or the Canadiens organization overall, will not budge from a two year bridge contract. Subban has more than proven himself in the last two years, so why not go long term?
The answer may come from Bergevin himself. The Canadiens' GM was on TSN with Gino Reda the other day before the beginning of the season, and to paraphrase what he said in the interview, he said that he was taking the long view on all decisions within the organization. He didn't want to be making snap judgements to possibly make the playoffs and sacrifice the future, and he didn't want to make mistakes that could hurt in five years. This may not apply specifically to Subban, but taking the long view, Bergevin has two good reasons to play hard ball on contract length and cash value with P.K.
1. Cap flexibility
In keeping Alex Galchenyuk up this year, even if he doesn't play past the 5 game threshold, it seems like Bergevin is looking for the Canadiens to be a serious Stanley Cup contender by next season. This makes sense with the departure of Scott Gomez, and being forced to eat all but $900,000 of his cap hit this year. This season isn't a wasted one, but it's one in which missing the playoffs does not mean failure. Next year the playoffs are a must.
Next year, without Subban signed, the Canadiens are projected to have just a hair over $11M in cap space with 8 of their top 9 forwards locked up, with David Desharnais being a restricted free agent. They also have 5 of their top 6 defensemen locked up, as well as Carey Price in goal. They have some room to move, but not enough to bring in a marquee free agent if they so choose.
So what? You say, they have another compliance buyout in the war chest, just use that on Tomas Kaberle or Rene Bourque. Well that's all well and good to say, but what if by the end of this year Marc Bergevin likes the play of both Kaberle and Bourque. What if he thinks keeping them on provides more value than the free agents available? Remember that he has two summers to use that buyout, 2013 and 2014. What if by 2014 there is someone on the team who's play lags behind their contract more than those two?
Not everything is so simple. Gomez was a no brainer, it had to be done in order to function next season, but the next step is more difficult. Having that flexibility from a management perspective is huge. This plays in heavily to wanting Subban to sign a bridge deal for lower dollars. It has less to do with undervaluing an asset, and more to do with wanting that flexibility to improve the team if he so chooses. He could always turn around and sign Subban to a 6 year extension in January of 2014, much like the organization did with Josh Gorges and Max Pacioretty.
2. Organizational philosophy
While you may not agree with it, having an organizational philosophy for two year bridge deals has benefitted the Habs with Price, Pacioretty, and Eller. Subban is more established than all those players were when they got their deals, and he plays a much more vital role (although one could argue that Price is just as vital), but he's also likely being offered more money. Maybe the offer isn't up to Subban's standards yet, but it might eventually be.
Taking the long view on this, if Bergevin were to buckle and agree to a long term deal with Subban, a few years from now he will be doing the same thing with Galchenyuk. The Canadiens have been trying to avoid overpaying on second contracts since Kevin Lowe started the trend right out of the last CBA, and they've been successful.
This is also a major deal for a rookie GM. Whatever he ends up agreeing to with Subban sets a standard for home grown stars. Can he afford to break the rules on his first tough job? The Canadiens have long had a tradition of rewarding players once they hit a certain veteran status. It happened with Koivu, Plekanec, Pacioretty, Price, Gorges, and it will happen with Subban too. They just want to keep the standard for all players the same.
I'm not saying I agree with Bergevin's stance on Subban's contract, in fact I was pretty clear in my piece yesterday that I don't, but I do understand where he's coming from. It's not inherent incompetence or undervaluing a player to negotiate firmly. Incompetence would have been trading Subban and the 3rd overall pick for the 1st overall pick "and something". Thank your lucky stars that we didn't hire that guy.