In his time as an NHLer, Alex Kovalev was a divisive figure. He had all the natural talent and size to be a dominating player and sometimes he was just that. In 2000-01, he scored 44 goals and 95 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a career high. But he was also inconsistent and his dedication was constantly called into question. In 2003-04, three years after that career-best season, Kovalev managed just 45 points in 78 games between the New York Rangers in Montreal Canadiens.
But he still made his money. In that 2003-04 season, the last without a salary cap, Kovalev earned $6.6 million. He made $4.5 million in the first four years of the cap and finished his career with two years at $5 million each. In all, Kovalev made around $52.6 million in his career.
So it’s kind of funny to hear what Kovalev said about P.K. Subban’s eight-year, $72 million extension with the Montreal Canadiens. It’s not Subban’s dedication that he calls into question, but that he doesn’t have the rounded game a defenseman should have to be a high-salaried player. Like him or not, Subban brings excitement, offence and marketability to the Habs, which is why owner Geoff Molson stepped in to make sure a deal got done outside of arbitration. After the defenseman signed a relatively cheap two-year bridge contract with the team in 2012, it was time to give him his due on this deal. Failure to do that would likely have led to Subban leaving the team as a UFA in two years. And who would they have had to replace the Norris winner?
Still, Kovalev of all people, didn’t believe Subban was worth the investment.
“First of all I don’t understand how they get these contracts,” Kovalev told Philippe Lehoux of RDS on Tuesday. “I know it’s a different lifestyle, different times…if you go back to the 70s they weren’t making the big contracts either and they probably felt the same way about us when we came into the league and started making big money. Now it’s the same thing for us.”
Kovalev, who played five seasons with the Canadiens from 2004 to 2009, added that he’s not a fan of Subban’s play on the blueline.
“I’m not saying that he isn’t a good hockey player – he’s not the guy,” he said. “He’s a risky defenceman and he’s a wide open defenceman. What I’m saying is that he can give up five goals and score five goals, and the score’s still going to be zero-zero.
So if for example, he saves five goals and scores five goals, that’s a different style of hockey. So I always compare him with (former Rangers teammate) Brian Leetch, because he wants to play the same kind of style and be more offensive. He’s not making the right decisions. He’s making the risky plays, he’s not making the right decisions sometimes. He just plays like we used to play on the street…street hockey.”
“Maybe because he won best defenceman of the year, that’s how they get paid these days,” he said. “You know, you win best player of the year and you get a big contract right away. But for his game, I don’t understand why he got so much money.”
In Kovalev’s day, many people wondered why he got the money he did, too. Yes he was incredibly talented, but he seemed to leave so much on the table – plus he never won an individual award, as Subban has.
But the most perplexing thing about this is that Kovalev doesn’t believe Subban is worth the money because he plays like Brian Leetch. Leetch, if you’ll recall, won the Conn Smythe in 1994 when the Rangers won the Cup and earned two Norris Trophies and a Calder as well. His career led to a Hall of Fame induction.
The most money Leetch ever made in a season was $9.68 million in 2002-03, which was towards the end of his career. In total, he made roughly $59.5 million in 17 seasons and obviously would have pulled in more had his prime come in today’s league.
Naturally, Kovalev and his generation of players made more money in the sport than the players who came before them. And even though a salary cap is currently in place, this generation of stars will still earn more than the players who came before them. As the cap goes up, the biggest stars will continue to make more and more money.
Subban’s contract was neither an overpayment, nor an underpayment, but market price for locking up a soon-to-be UFA for a number of years. The superstars will always get paid – it’s the depth lines that will be filled with $1-$3 million players, or youngsters on entry-level contracts.
This is just the reality of the current NHL market. Subban got his due, just as Kovalev did in his day – even if not everyone believed he deserved his salary. That’s the market for you.