At first glance, the Nashville Predators’ trade with Toronto this weekend could be puzzling to some. With that being said, Preds general manager David Poile usually has a method to his madness. The always-crafty GM is looking big-picture as the most vital contract negotiation(s) in team history await in the next days, weeks and months.
On Sunday the Predators dealt promising defenseman Cody Franson and the concussed Matthew Lombardi (who played four periods in 2010-11) to the Maple Leafs in exchange for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney, two players that may never play a role in Music City.
“Unfortunately, Matthew Lombardi's concussion last season and recovery left us uncertain about his ability to come back for this season, and that uncertainty has made it difficult for us to move forward, plan and develop our lineup,” Poile said in a statement on Sunday. “We never like to give up young homegrown talent like Cody Franson, but have to give up something in order to put ourselves in position to do other things to improve our team, which we are committed to doing between now and training camp.”
It was obvious salary-shedding by Poile, with perhaps a subsequent move up his sleeve. Was that move signing free agent Niclas Bergfors for close to the league minimum? Doubt it. Does the impending situation surrounding the restricted free agents play a factor? Maybe. Is something bigger in the works, like a trade? Who knows.
However, the most likely reason Poile traded Lombardi’s contract was to free salary cap room to ensure the ‘big three’ – Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter – stay in town.
The ‘big three’ will all see their contracts expire in the next 12 months. Weber is currently a restricted free agent, but is not prone to an offer sheet since the Predators opted for arbitration. If Poile can’t get him signed long-term before July 20th, which is the arbitration date, Weber will stay in Nashville for one or two years before he becomes a free agent again.
Rinne and Suter have one year left on their deals and are slated to be unrestricted free agents at this time next summer. While Weber steals most of the headlines, you can make an argument those two may be more valuable to the Predators’ success (not taking anything away from the captain, of course).
All three will command big raises from the salary in the final year of their respective contracts. Weber is likely seeking around $7 million a year; and it could be more after seeing what kind of coin teams have given certain free agents this off-season. It can be expected that Suter will ask for something close to whatever Weber gets, while another Vezina-caliber season from Rinne would make his value rise even more.
The estimated total cap hit of these three players is around $19 million, which would make up at least a third of the team’s payroll. That number is much higher than the trio’s combined $11.4 million cap hit in the 2010-11 season.
Considering Lombardi’s health, his $3.5 million annual cap hit for the next two years was basically dead money. Nashville can’t afford to carry that kind of contract without knowing when/if Lombardi will step on NHL ice again.
The cost of unloading his dead-weight salary to Toronto was Franson. While he has some upside and is solid offensively, he was expendable given all of the high-end defensive prospects in the system. In total, the Preds save $2.8 million in this trade with the Leafs; and it would have been more for 2012-13 as Franson enters the final year of his contract.
The Preds currently sit approximately $20.4 million below the salary cap mid-line of $56.3 million, which is the magic number for them not to go over because of revenue sharing. Assuming about $7 million of that goes to Weber, and maybe another $5-6 million to the unsigned restricted free agents, Poile may have some money to spend for the 2011-12 season.
After seeing Dany Heatley and Jeff Carter get dealt, it may not seem like there’s a whole lot more scorers left to be traded. Yet, teams are always more willing to make trades in the summer rather than in-season.
If a trade is indeed on the way, the Preds would be in position to take on a big-salary player that is in the last year of his deal. If not, well they’d have a lot of cap space to spare.
The wild card in all of this is the group of four restricted free agents that may have had their qualifying offers botched by the front office. The NHL and NHLPA are scheduled to have the grievance hearing on Friday. If those RFA’s become UFA’s, then Poile will have to scramble to get them signed; and he may have to overpay if he wants them done promptly.
Whether Poile has another move in the works or not, though, the most important matter to come out of this weekend’s trade with Toronto was future financial flexibility and stability for the team’s backbone – Weber, Rinne and Suter.
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