The most sought after commodity on the free agent wire, the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, the biggest contract extension of the offseason: all of these have one thing in common, they involved a defenseman. When P.K. Subban signed the biggest contract in Montreal Canadiens history, it signified a changing of the guard as far as value goes in the NHL. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin may still be the marquee players for the NHL and its broadcasting family, but we are entering the age of the defensive super star.
In hockey, teams are built from the goal crease out. This makes defensemen a valuable commodity, especially ones like Subban who can also contribute on offense. Back in the 1990’s, defense was there to smother offensive chances, and teams like the New Jersey Devils utilized the trap system to win their first of three Stanley Cups.
In today’s NHL, the majority of top pairing defensemen are expected to not only play defense, but to also set up scoring chances and put the puck in the net. P.K. Subban’s 53 points (10 goals, 43 assists) in 2013-14 was a career high and directly lead to his $72 million pay day. At $9 million for the 2014-15 season, Subban will be the highest paid player on the Canadiens roster (the second highest paid player is also a defenseman, Andrei Markov, who will pocket $5.75 million).
It isn’t just the Canadiens that are paying big for blue line talent. The second and third highest paid players on the Philadelphia Flyers are defensemen Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald (only Claude Girouix makes more). On the Chicago Blackhawks, defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are the fourth and fifth highest players on the roster. Zdeno Chara is the highest paid player on the Boston Bruins and Drew Doughty is the highest paid player on the Los Angeles Kings.
The NHL thought it had its big defensive super star in Mike Green of the Washington Capitals, but injuries have plagued his career and he has quickly faded away. It was a missed opportunity to have a marquee defensive player playing in our nation’s capital. Mike Green may not have panned out, but the Capitals made the biggest splash during free agency by signing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to big contracts. Orpik is nearing the end of his useful playing days, but Niskanen is coming off a breakout season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. If he can prove that 2013-14 was not a fluke, he could become a big name on the Caps roster and succeed where Mike Green failed.
While the top offensive prospects gain the most attention during the NHL draft, the Florida Panthers selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick during the 2014 NHL draft. With the Edmonton Oilers also looking to build up their blue line, Ekblad was a hot commodity at the draft this year.
With the draft, free agency, and the Subban contract extension, defense has been the big story of the NHL this offseason. As the salaries increase, so does the attention that some of these players receive. Really the only thing keeping P.K. Subban from reaching the star power of the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin is the fact he plays for a Canadian team.
No offense meant to our neighbors up north, but down here in the states we get the Rangers, Bruins, Blackhawks, Penguins, and Flyers crammed down our throats. Subban may be a household name in Canada, but with the Canadiens not getting as much attention on NBC, it is difficult for casual fans to build that recognition. P.K. Subban is a super star to hardcore hockey fans at the moment. However, with the big contract extension and the Montreal Canadiens being a playoff contender, perhaps we will see the NHL expand its marketing of Subban to a wider audience.