Despite relatively low fanfare, one of hockey’s biggest names is set to be become an unrestricted free agent this summer. New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban will become a UFA for the first time in his career, having just finished the final year of an eight-year, $72MM contract that carried a $9MM AAV. Subban signed that contract with the Montreal Canadiens prior to the start of the 2014-15 season, but would only play two of the eight years with Montreal before being dealt to the Nashville Predators. The star defenseman would spend three seasons in Nashville, making a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017, but was again traded to New Jersey in 2019.
A former Norris Trophy winner, Subban is no longer the player he was in Montreal and Nashville, trailing off in production the past few seasons. From 2012-13 (his Norris season) through 2017-18, Subban averaged 58 points per 82 games played, including a career-high of 60 in 2014-15. However, since the start of the 2018-19 season, Subban’s production has been cut, quite literally, in half, averaging just 29 points per 82 games played. Though Subban was never regarded as elite defensively, he’s also seen his struggles in his own end too in recent years. Most notably, during the same 2012-13 through 2017-18 stretch, the defenseman compiled a plus-43 rating in 422 games, which dropped to a near-opposite minus-40 in a far fewer 252 games.
Having just turned 33-years-old, and with the previous four years of regression, Subban is very unlikely to come anywhere close to his previous contract, but it’s not to say he won’t have interest this offseason or a shortage of places to play next season. The veteran has appeared to establish himself as a well-liked leader in an incredibly young Devils locker room and still possesses the big shot and physical ability that made him one of the elite defenders of the 2010’s. Subban could find himself as an important piece on a competitive team which can limit his exposure and utilize him in favorable matchups; perhaps a team that already has solid defensive depth, but is missing the offensive upside from the blueline that Subban does provide. One comparison to this end could be how the Edmonton Oilers have used Tyson Barrie, who posted two strong seasons after a rough 2019-20 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As mentioned, Subban is surely not going to find himself with a $9MM AAV this offseason, but he will have opportunities. What his next contract looks like is very much a mystery, however. One possibility could be to follow in the footsteps of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Though Shattenkirk doesn’t have as impressive of a track record as Subban, he did find himself as a UFA after two down seasons with the New York Rangers, having been bought out after two years of a four-year, $26.6MM contract. The path Shattenkirk chose was to sign a one-year, $1.75MM contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2019-20 season, where he would rebound, admittedly not to his past standard, but enough to earn a three-year, $11.7MM contract with the Anaheim Ducks the very next offseason.
Returning to Barrie, he utilized a very similar strategy, signing a one-year, $3.75MM deal for the 2020-21 season with Edmonton, rebounding and earning a three-year, $13.5MM extension with the Oilers. Perhaps Subban could sign a low-value deal in a well-suited role to rebuild his value in hopes of finding a favorable multi-year deal next offseason.
A multi-year deal this offseason at a (reasonably) higher salary isn’t necessarily off the table for Subban, however his options to combine this offer with an ability to compete for a Stanley Cup could be more limited. Considering the current flat-cap and Subban’s age and recent regression, competitive teams will have to budget carefully and taking on a player like Subban who could be considered a bit of a “project,” may not necessarily be a move a team like that would be keen on making.
If Subban does sign a multi-year contract this offseason, ones like Shattenkirk’s with Anaheim, Barrie’s extension with Edmonton, or even Jack Johnson’s five-year, $16.25MM contract that he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the 2018-19 season, could be strong comparisons. It is worth noting though, that both Shattenkirk and Barrie played their one-year “rebuilding seasons” at age 29, and Johnson was 31 when he signed his long-term contract in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Subban turned 33 this week.
Regardless of how Subban pursues his first trip to unrestricted free agency, he should still have a market that offers him several options considering the skills and value he brings on and off the ice. With his previous status as an elite defenseman, his recent regression, and still being regarded as one of the game’s most marketable stars no matter his on-ice performance, his free agency is sure to be intriguing.