Coming off an historic season and most successful postseason in franchise history, the Nashville Predators now set their sights on the off-season. For a team that has a solid nucleus and bright future, there are still a handful of uncertainties as summer inches closer. Here are five question marks for the Preds heading into the off-season. Can the Preds lock up Shea Weber long-term?
Shea Weber, who is a restricted free agent this summer, says a deal will get done with the Predators. To me, GM David Poile has three options here: sign Weber to a long-term contract for five-plus years; sign him to a short-term deal as a bridge to his prime; or tender him a contract if a deal isn’t done by July 1 (which is the last thing Poile would want as arbitration may follow).
The longer the term, the happier all parties involved will be. Weber loves it in Nashville. He is the team captain, face of the franchise and at the center of the locker room camaraderie. Getting a long-term deal done may depend on if Poile can spread the money differently from year to year; remember, real money is what matters to Nashville, not necessarily the cap hit.
In my opinion, the most likely result is a three- or four-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $7 million a year, which would take Weber into his prime. That would help bring stability to the roster and help the team continue their ascent to being an annual Stanley Cup contender. If he’d opt to leave then, he can still get big money elsewhere.
I doubt Poile wants to have to resort to a qualifying offer and risk arbitration, which usually results in a one-year deal. Weber is a year away from being eligible for unrestricted free agency. Poile’s goal is to have this matter completed by July 1.
Will they be able to hang on to Joel Ward?
As much as the Predators would love to keep Joel Ward, this may be his best (and only) chance to cash in as a free agent. His extraordinary postseason (13 points in 12 games) assumedly raised some eyebrows around the league. Ward may be able to double his salary from $1.5 to $3 million on July 1, given the importance of reliable defensive forwards in today’s NHL (see: Manny Malhotra).
Ward’s goals and points totals have descended in each of the last of the two seasons, but you know what you’re getting from the hard-working winger every night. In three years, he has been a perfect fit in Nashville.
At the end of the year, Ward expressed a desire to stay in Nashville: “Hopefully I get an opportunity to come back and stay and be a part of this. I love the city, the people, the fans; everything has been great. I’m hoping things will work out, for sure.”
Extensions for Weber and Sergei Kostitsyn will factor into the ability to re-sign Ward. If you had to ask me now, I would expect the 30-year-old to test the free agent waters.
How will the statuses of Matthew Lombardi and Francis Bouillon affect free agency?
Will Matthew Lombardi and/or Francis Bouillon be ready for the 2011-12 season? That’s the million dollar question that nobody knows the answer to. Both were knocked out for the season with a concussion (Lombardi on Oct. 13; Bouillon on Jan. 16).
In his end-of-season press conference, Poile did not sound too optimistic about their progression since they suffered their respective concussions, and couldn’t say with any sort of confidence that they’d be ready for the season.
So that begs the question: if they are going to be unavailable for the start of the season, what does that do to the Preds’ thinking process in free agency? With Lombardi healthy, this team is set down the middle; the same goes for the blueline if Bouillon is 100 percent.
The Preds have two free agents – center Marcel Goc and defenseman Shane O’Brien – that could be affected by the status of Lombardi and Bouillon. At this point, Goc is more likely to return than O’Brien.
If they can’t re-sign either of them, and Lombardi and Bouillon don’t improve, Poile may be inclined to grab some depth in free agency if the budget allows.
Will veterans Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont be back?
Steve Sullivan is an unrestricted free agent, while J.P. Dumont has one year left on his contract. They are two of the longest-tenured Predators, but have uncertain futures with the team.
Sullivan has been a fan favorite ever since he was acquired back in 2004. With that said, he has experienced a lot of injury problems in the last four seasons, including a two-year absence with a serious back injury. Soon to be 37 years old, Sullivan isn’t ready to hang up the skates, but isn’t the consistent offensive producer he once was.
Dumont tallied just 19 points in 70 games this season – his lowest total since 1999-00. The last year on his deal is worth $4 million, which is a pretty high number for someone getting fourth-line minutes and is on a decline. Will the Preds find a trade suitor, buy him out, or keep him? Dumont, 33, has a no-movement clause.
It’s hard to picture a Predators team without Sullivan and Dumont on the roster; depending on how things go, that could wind up being the case.
Can Poile snag some goal-scoring help?
Something that was evident in the Preds’ second-round series against Vancouver was the lack of a true goal-scorer. It’s always been that ‘what if’ with this team. ‘What if’ they had a 40-goal-scorer? ‘What if’ they had someone like Ilya Kovalchuk? You could safely say that this is the one weakness on an otherwise deep and well-rounded team.
Without there being any top-end free agents, if Poile wants to address this in the summer, he would have to go the trade route… or see Alexander Radulov return.
In July of 2008, Radulov left the Preds (with a year left on his rookie contract) to head overseas to his home country and the KHL. While in Russia for the last three years, Radulov has been one of the stars of the KHL, but has hinted that a return to the NHL – as soon as next season – is possible.
Even though Radulov, 24, turned his back on the franchise, there are some that would welcome him back with open arms. For Nashville, the idea of adding an offensive threat like Radulov for under $1 million has to be appealing. (There is no guarantee that Radulov will be playing in the NHL next season or even four years from now.)
Whether it’s through trade or via the comeback of Radulov, bringing in a goal-scorer would immensely help the Predators’ chances of going even deeper in the playoffs.
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