It's the best time of year!
We all know Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter is an unrestricted free agent after the season. The NHL trade deadline is also six weeks away. If Suter is not signed by February 27th, what does GM David Poile do? Does he trade Suter and make sure he doesn’t walk away for nothing in the summer? Or does Poile keep Suter to enhance the team’s chances at a playoff run? Judging by recent comments from the Predators GM, it could very well be the former.
If that possibility actually came to fruition, it would certainly be a different sight without Suter and Shea Weber patrolling the blueline side-by-side. Would the Preds be able to survive without Suter? Here are some reasons from both sides of the fence…
Why they could get by
- The Predators will still have Weber for at least another year, and possibly longer if the team can further prove to him that a Stanley Cup can indeed be won in Nashville.
- The organization is rich when it comes to quality young defensemen. We’ve recently seen a pint-size example of what Ryan Ellis is capable of in the present and future. Roman Josi is a promising blueliner that stepped up under pressure when Weber missed time with a concussion. Despite this season’s roller coaster, Jonathon Blum has a lot of potential, which we saw first-hand last spring.
None of them are Suter right now. And they may never become as well-rounded of a defenseman as Suter is at this moment. But do they have the potential to eventually become a defenseman that is on par with other top-pair defensemen around the league? Absolutely. Blum will turn 23 later this month, while Josi is 21 and Ellis just turned 21. There is still a lot of development to be done for all three of them.
- Suter will demand Weber-type money ($7.5 million/year) on the open market. And he could get more. If average second-pair rearguards like Christian Ehrhoff (10 years, $40 million) and James Wisniewski (6 years, $33 million) can earn top-pair money in this salary cap era, I cringe at what a team could offer Suter on July 1st – which is likely why he is reluctant to sign with the Preds, knowing the payday he could get elsewhere.
If the Preds are willing to spend over $7 million a year on Suter, they could use some of that on (a) getting that much-anticipated, much-needed goal-scorer or (b) signing a veteran stop-gap defenseman to essentially be a bridge to the when the aforementioned rookies are ready to play 20 minutes a night.
The Preds are willing to spend money. They gave $7 million a year to a goaltender in an era where teams like to go on the cheap between the pipes. If they can’t sign Suter, it doesn’t mean they won’t utilize that money elsewhere.
- Head coach Barry Trotz has grown accustomed over the years to adjusting on the fly without top players, whether it’s off-season departures or injuries. Somehow, the Preds made the playoffs in 2008 after watching Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell exit stage left. The Preds survived without last year’s ‘prize’ free agent signee, Matthew Lombardi, for 80 games plus the postseason.
Now, Suter is a different animal. I get that. He’s one of the 10 best defensemen in the league. But if there is any NHL coach that can overcome losing a player as talented and valuable as Suter, it is Trotz.
Why they could not
- Because it’s Suter. The soon-to-be 27-year-old, as I mentioned above, is an elite defenseman. He can control the pace of a game and is a smooth-skating puck-mover that doesn’t mind getting physical. Those kinds of blueliners don’t necessarily grow on trees. Not to mention, he’s a big part of the team’s leadership group. When Weber was out, Suter became the voice of the room and took on the weight of having to be the leader of the defense.
There’s no doubt it would be a big void to fill, both on and off the ice.
- In the last two years we’ve gotten a small taste of what the blueline would look like without one of Suter and Weber. Early last year, Suter missed 12 games with a knee injury. And then there’s Weber’s recent concussion, for which he missed just four games after the holidays.
In the games without Suter last year, the defense was in shambles at times. In those 12 games, the team’s goals-against average was 3.08 (0.76 above the season average); the Preds also surrendered 31.3 shots per game in that span (0.7 above the season average). Most importantly, the team’s record was 4-7-1.
In four games without Weber this year, the team went 3-1-0. The team’s GAA in that span, 2.25, and shots against, 28.3, were both lower than the current season average.
(Some people think with/without stat splits are overrated; but numbers are numbers, so make your own judgments with these statistics.)
- Just looking at the rest of this year, no matter who would be coming the other way, how would the team react if Suter were dealt? In our calendar year recap for 2011, Suter had this to say of the Mike Fisher acquisition from last February:
“Whenever you get a guy at the trade deadline, it doesn’t matter if he’s a good player, a great player, or an average player, it boosts your team no matter what. When your GM shows you a sign he’s got faith in you as a team, it gives your team a boost.” Later on in that same conversation, Suter admitted it also goes the other way if a GM deals away a star player.
The team’s goal is not just to make the playoffs, but to contend for the Cup. What kind of message would it send to the team if one of their better players was traded away right before the stretch run for the playoffs? As much as the Pekka Rinne extension lifted the locker room, one would guess that a trade of this magnitude could have the opposite effect.
- There’s also the doomsday scenario where Suter leaving could sway Weber to do the same when he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
David Poile’s uneasy predicament
Twenty-nine other GM’s would rather not be in the position that Poile finds himself in right now. Six weeks away from the trade deadline, Poile is likely covering his bases just in case he decides to trade Suter. But pulling the trigger on a deal wouldn’t be easy.
If Suter isn’t signed by Feb. 27, there’s no question Poile has to look at other options, and there’s no exact cookie-cutter way to approach a situation like this. The Atlanta Thrashers dealt Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa at past deadlines and have nothing of importance left to show for those trades. Dallas and Florida held on to Brad Richards (partly due to injury at the time) and Jay Bouwmeester, respectively, and just the missed the playoffs. To pour fuel on the fire, Richards and Bouwmeester both signed elsewhere in the free agent frenzy.
Poile is going to have to weigh what is more important: getting a hefty return of picks and prospects for Suter instead of risking losing him for nothing, or keeping him and hope to make a playoff run that might convince Suter to re-sign?
As much as it’d irritate Poile to decide on a trade, getting a third-round pick for Suter’s negotiating rights in June would pale in comparison to what he’d get in a trade in February. At the same time, Poile can’t let other teams take advantage of him and end up getting an underwhelming package in return. If Poile trades someone of Suter’s stature, he should get what he wants or not trade him at all.
Here’s the tricky part of this ordeal. If another team wants Suter, a rental player for the stretch run and playoffs, they aren’t going to give up a top-flight player. For instance, Philadelphia, who needs help on defense, is one of the many teams that have been thrown into rumors involving Suter. They would be getting Suter with the intent of going for the Cup this spring. Are they going to give up, say, a 30-goal scorer like Scott Hartnell? No. And that goes for other teams looking to acquire Suter. So if the Preds are to get that goal-scoring help this season, it’d likely have to be in a separate deal.
I wouldn’t expect Poile to give up on the Suter negotiations weeks before the deadline. If anything, he could try to make a splash that could help convince Suter to sign. If Suter is in fact dealt, one would assume that Poile would have another deal lined up to help soften the blow.
No matter how you look at it, it’s a tough position for Poile to be in.
Suter could sign on the dotted line tomorrow and make this whole discussion irrelevant. But judging by Poile’s recent tone in relation to the negotiations, it is unlikely.
This is the last thing Predators fans want to think about, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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