Whenever the NHL lockout finally comes to an end, the first order of business for the Montreal Canadiens should be re-signing young blueline star P.K. Subban to a new, long-term contract.
Since his debut with the Canadiens during their surprising march to the 2010 Eastern Conference final, Subban has quickly established himself as a rising star in Montreal, rivalling only goaltender Carey Price.
A swift, skilled puck-moving defenseman who doesn't shy away from physical play, the 23-year-old is considered the future anchor of the Habs defense corps.
Subban's sophomore performance last season, however, wasn't without some difficulties. His goal total dropped from 14 to 7, and his points from 38 to 36, though his plus-minus improved, from minus-8 in 2010-'11 to plus-9 in '11-'12.
His propensity to take chances at times led to costly defensive blunders, while his perceived cockiness not only rubbed opponents the wrong way, but led to some dust-ups with teammates at practice.
Most observers, however, consider these “growing pains” and believe experience and maturity will help Subban round into a disciplined, all-round defenseman.
A restricted free agent following last season, Subban's agent negotiated throughout the summer with new Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, but the two sides were unable to reach a deal before the expiration of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement.
Term and dollars were the sticking points. Subban reportedly rejected a two-year, $5 million offer and it's believed the two sides were discussing a three-year, $12 million deal prior to the lockout.
The lack of progress inevitably led to trade speculation in hockey-mad Montreal.
In early September, it was reported the Philadelphia Flyers - having failed in their efforts to sign Nashville Predators d-man Shea Weber - had made enquiries into Subban's availability.
Other clubs were also rumored to have expressed interest in Subban, but only the Flyers were reported in the media. Rumor bloggers linked him to the Edmonton Oilers, suggesting a swap for Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft.
Given the uncertain state of veteran defenseman Andrei Markov's surgically repaired knee and the declining performance of Tomas Kaberle, Subban is now the Canadiens’ best puck-carrying defenseman. Swapping him for a scoring forward would leave a big hole on their blueline.
For his part, Subban expressed no desire to leave Montreal, telling NHL.com he grew up a Canadiens fan, loved playing in Montreal and wanted to spend his career there.
Bergevin is expected to do what he can to ensure Subban gets his wish. The current lack of a CBA means the Canadiens cannot sign him at the moment, but odds are it’ll happen quickly once a new agreement is in place.
Cap concerns were a significant factor in the Canadiens' talks with the Subban camp.
With more than $63.8 million committed to this season and more than $60.1 million invested in 16 players for 2013-14, Bergevin could have difficulty finding sufficient cap space for Subban's new contract. Depending upon what's contained in the next CBA, Bergevin could be forced to shed salary to make room for that contract.
Over the past two decades, Canadiens fans have witnessed their club trade away promising young players (John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Valeri Bure, Mike Ribeiro, Mikhail Grabovski, Ryan McDonagh) who became stars on other teams, which explains their nervousness over Subban's contract status.
Bergevin, however, understands Subban's value to his roster. It is just a matter of finding the dollars to fit him comfortably under their salary cap, for this season and the future.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.