The Predators are sitting nice and pretty in the standings as we head into the All-Star break, residing in fourth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. As the team continues to chase down its sixth playoff berth in seven years, there’s an off-ice issue at hand that is nearly impossible to ignore.
Shea Weber is a restricted free agent this summer, and there is already talk about what his future holds. Contrary to popular belief, he likes playing in Nashville. He really does. He is also well-liked in the locker room and at the center of the team’s great camaraderie.
If I’m GM David Poile, the thing that would worry me is not necessarily Weber’s contract; it’s the fact that Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne are also due raises in the next two years.
Weber, 25, is the first home-grown superstar in franchise history. Suter, 26, is equally as good of a defenseman as Weber (he just doesn’t have the star-power like his blueline partner). Rinne, 28, is quietly emerging as a top-flight goaltender in this league. All are just scratching the surface of their prime.
Can the conservative-spending team afford to keep this core intact? Doing so is essential, despite great organizational depth. It will be tough, but one reason why Poile will be able to do it is the veterans coming off the books in coming years.
I wouldn’t expect both Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont to remain in Nashville when their contracts end. If anything, Sullivan would stay for a cheaper price than his current salary ($3.75M); while Dumont is expected to be a goner after next season. Between the two, they combine for a $7.75 million cap hit, according to CapGeek. If they both happen to part ways, it would be useful money to shuffle around when trying to re-sign this ‘big three’.
The top priority is Weber, obviously; not only because his contract ends first, but also because he’s become the biggest star Nashville has had before their prime. When in negotiations, though, you can bet Poile will have Suter and Rinne in the back of his mind, knowing they are a year away from free agency.
I do believe Weber, one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL, is going to re-sign with the Preds (maybe for three or four years). Would the All-Star take a hometown discount, though? The higher the number, the tougher it will be for Poile to lock up Suter and Rinne in 2012.
This is where the team’s success can come into play. There is a determination from this team that I have never seen before. If they get into the postseason (which is looking good right now), you get the feeling this is finally the year they’ll get over the hump – no matter what their seed is. A deep run would not only help Weber’s case for staying, but would also assist the Preds financially in trying to keep this core.
As I profiled early last month, Suter is just as important to Nashville’s success as Weber is. Suter’s plus-17 rating leads the team, and his calm puck-moving presence allows the Captain to be the ‘loud’ defenseman that Coach Barry Trotz likes to describe him as.
The Madison, Wisc., native won’t have as hefty of a price tag as Weber, but it will be just as crucial to keep him around. Suter would likely be more inclined to take less money, too.
The wildcard in all of this is Rinne. Weber and Suter are one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, which has overshadowed the fact that Rinne will also see his contract end next summer.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Poile has to find any way possible to lock up Rinne. The 6’5” Finn keeps getting better every year and is budding into one of the best goaltenders in the world. Plus, Anders Lindback may or may not be ready to be a full-time starter in two years.
There is a perception that Nashville always trades their best players or lets them go in free agency. That is well overplayed, as one summer is always used as an example (the Summer of Hell in 2007). Players they dealt last summer, Jason Arnott and Dan Hamhuis, were not in the future plans of this team and had worn out their welcome.
In the end, I do see this trio re-signing. The question then becomes how long will they stay? Would Weber sign a short-term contract with the mindset he’ll test free agency in his prime at 28 or 29 years old? Would Suter and/or Rinne take less to save money and help out Poile?
Between the three, I estimate they’d have a combined cap hit around $16 million, which is not a massive uptick from the current number of $11.4 million. It’s not impossible for Poile to lock these guys up if he spends wisely otherwise, especially since he would have two summers to figure everything out.
It’s definitely an interesting predicament for Nashville in the next couple years and whether Poile can silence the critics and hold on to the team’s best players. I think he realizes just how big these negotiations are for the franchise, likely the biggest in its history.
Right now, though, the Predators have their sights set on something else: getting into the playoffs and winning once they’re there.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.