Odd Man Out?

Much has been made of Nashville Predators efforts to re-sign their so-called ‘Big Three players’ — defensemen Shea Weber (left) and Ryan Suter (center), along with Goaltender Pekka Rinne (right). Weber, who is without a contract, will have one within a week by virtue of salary arbitration. Rinne and Suter, each in the final year of their deals are not so certain, however. Could Suter be the odd man out? (Photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images)


What’s the Deal?
Recently there’s been a ton of commentary and speculation amongst the local fan and blog community regarding the contractual disposition of the Nashville Predators’ so called, ‘Big Three’: Defenseman Shea Weber, Goaltender, Pekka Rinne, and Weber’s defensive partner, Ryan Suter.

(Did’ja see what I did there in listing the three players? Seems that’s what everyone else has been doing for months now — and don’t think for a minute that I’m the only one who’s noticed.)

Most of the discussion surrounds the question of why Weber, the Preds’ most high-profile player, is still unsigned, less than a week from his arbitration hearing (you know, the one that everybody has assumed would be a mere formality?).

It leads to another question: is the holdup really about what Shea is demanding, or is there a larger issue that we’re not privy to?

The following is strictly my own opinion on this and other related matters. Use for comparison. Your mileage may vary.

Personally, I cannot believe that Weber is feigning loyalty to Nashville publicly then trying to hold them up at the negotiating table. I believe him when he says that he wishes to remain a Predator and do not think that he’s attempting to hedge that commitment to the team by simply holding out for a short-term deal (a notion ascribed to by many).

Given the history of this team I don’t believe it’s possible for such a disconnect to exist between Nashville’s players and the economic reality of its ownership group. I find it hard that anyone could genuinely consider Tom Cigarran and company merely trying to low-ball them, salary-wise. There is a very real fiscal reason that the Predators have been takers in the NHL’s profit-sharing program; at this point they have to be in order to remain competitive. Hopefully that won’t always be the case but it is now. I believe that fact has been well-accepted by even the stoutest of Preds-haters in the media (whose numbers, thankfully, have decreased dramatically over the past two seasons), being replaced by a great deal of praise and respect for General Manager David Poile and Head Coach Barry Trotz’s continual ability to assemble a playoff-contender under such constraints.

So why the seeming dichotomy of actions on the part of Weber and his agent in getting the deal done prior to the pleasantries of arbitration, scheduled to rear its ugly head next Tuesday, August 2nd?

Well’p since nobody else is foolish enough to suggest it, I guess I will.

Maybe There WAS a Method…
I believe there’s a good reason why David Poile decided to just say no to the NHL Free Agent Frenzy period in early July — and it goes way beyond merely not wishing to overpay.

There’s a good reason why he made the decision to allow Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, and Steve Sullivan to walk; why Matthew Lombardi’s $3.5 million millstone-of-a-contract was passed on to Toronto, even at the expense of also losing top defensive prospect Cody Franson in the process. There’s also a good reason why J.P. Dumont and his $4 million burden was bought out in lieu of opting to give one of Nashville’s most popular players a last chance to redeem himself and ride off into the sunset, with dignity, as a Predator.

I believe there’s a good reason that the Predators are currently beneath the salary cap floor, with three as yet vacant spots to fill. Depending on which first-year players make the roster out of training camp and/or the team signs another free agent or two, they have in the neighborhood of $38-$41 million of salary to add for the upcoming season — assuming they spend to the mid-cap level (which would be around $56 million this season) as has been their habit. Certainly that amount of cap space wasn’t cleared just to accommodate the re-signing of Weber.

Nope, I believe there is — or at least, was — a much grander scheme afoot in David Poile’s effort to clear the decks as he has done over the past several weeks.

Obviously, as the team’s marquee player and the only one of the Big Three who is still a restricted free agent, Shea Weber is the linchpin. He’s gotta be signed first in order to set the salary bar for the rest of the team going forward and to make way for the fulfillment of Poile’s already-publicly acknowledged promise that at some point between now and the 2012 trade deadline, a top-six scoring threat would be added for the playoff run — even if that player turns out to be a rental.

Awesome; now we know where we stand, right? Just get Shea back on the books and work like hell to get Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter re-upped before next July 1st when they become UFAs.

It’s simple, right?

Except that something doesn’t compute here, and I think pretty much everyone close to the situation can feel it.

We know that Webs wants to re-sign — either that or he’s a bald-faced liar (and absolutely no one believes that). We also know that Pekka has been equally effusive via the media, espousing his love and appreciation for the city of Nashville and the Predators organization. It’s not in his nature to be two-faced or short-sighted with overly-ambitious demands for extending his contact prior to next July.

If anything, it’s been openly suggested that both Weber and Rinne would be amenable to extending the Preds a hometown discount, making it possible for Poile to add talent around the core group of players and placing the team in position of serious Stanley Cup contenders over the next few seasons. As Poile mentioned at the recently held Skate of the Union meeting at Bridgestone Arena, the Preds’ window of opportunity is open…now.

So, that leaves Ryan Suter, whose public silence on the subject of extending his deal has, quite frankly, been deafening. And athough, as a Preds fan, I’d obviously love to see him place the team first in the matter, I’d also have to be honest in saying that I can’t blame him if he indeed does feel a bit unwilling to ‘take one for the team’ even if Weber is willing to do the same.

Why, you ask? Well, name me another defenseman in the league who’s better at what he does? Name another team on which Suter wouldn’t be considered the top guy on the top d-paring (well, besides Detroit — but you get what I’m saying).

Suter was the Predators’ first and the league’s seventh overall pick in the now-legendary 2003 NHL Entry Draft, held here in Nashville. He was the top-rated defenseman in that talent-laden draft and all he has done since coming into the league in 2005 is to meet or exceed expectations, both in NHL and international play.

Yet now, he’s clearly playing 3rd fiddle to both Weber and Rinne.

I believe that’s a problem. I also believe that’s one of, if not the primary reason that Shea is still unsigned.

Furthermore, I believe it’s the reason that Preds fans aren’t currently dancing on the clouds in celebration of not only Weber’s re-signing, but the extensions of Rinne and Suter as well.

Cannonbaaalll!
You see, I am of the firm opinion that David Poile wanted to blow us away. I believe he wanted to make a splash so big that the entire hockey world be buzzing about it all summer long. I believe his intent going into the off-season was to re-sign Weber, then extend Suter and Pekka and announce it all at once.

Why would I entertain such a fantastic hockey wet-dream? Because it’s the only course of action that explains what we’ve seen out of the Nashville front office since the off-season began; it’s the only plan that makes sense.

Letting Marcel Goc go when less than $1.75 million per season would have kept him in Music City makes no sense, especially when following up that non-action by passing on every possibly significant 20-goal-scoring UFA forward on the market. Even re-signing Joel Ward for the $3 Million per year he ended up getting from Washington makes more sense than that.

And in so doing, effectively pulling the rug out from under a previously excited and energized Nashville fan base, effectively giving them little-to-no hope that the team’s goal-scoring woes would at least be seriously addressed has left even the thirstiest of DP Kool-Aid-drinkers scratching their heads.

Sorry, but I’m just used to David Poile doing things that make sense.

On the other hand, announcing a blockbuster signing party of the team’s three most significant players (while at the same time assuaging every Chicken Little Preds fan’s worst fear — that one of them will leave the team), now that makes sense.

And while I have only the wispiest of rumoresque inklings to support my belief that Suter is really the one holding up the party, unfortunately the potential that he indeed might do such a thing makes perfect sense.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to rain on Suter’s spotless reputation. I’m not here to indicate that  he’s being less than truthful when he says that he actually prefers flying under the media radar; that he likes the fact that Weber and Rinne are the ones in the spotlight rather than him, because that makes sense too. Suter, like Weber, has never been a big talker; he lets his play on the ice speak for him.

But does that baize attitude toward drawing attention extend to the kind that has multiple zeroes attached to it? It’s hard to say. One can only speculate how Suter really feels about the shadow that Weber has cast over his career, but no one could blame him if he indeed was a little miffed. I mean, wouldn’t you be?

Sibling Rivalry
I do not doubt Ryan Suter as a team player. I’m not even remotely suggesting that there’s any animosity between he and Shea Weber. This really isn’t about hurt feelings; at this point it’s about business (…oh, and…maybe just a little bit about hurt feelings).

The fact of the matter is, as Predators fans, we may not completely grasp just what a special thing it is to have the privilege of enjoying, not one, but two true #1 defensemen in our team’s top blueline pairing.

Weber and Suter aren’t #1 and #2; they’re #1a and #1b.

However at the beginning of their careers, it was Suter whom everyone was all gaga about; his compensation reflected that. Suter’s three-year entry-level contract ($2,827,200) paid him just under $1 million more than Weber’s three-year pact ($1,831,000). However, almost from the outset, Weber’s special talent came bursting through and anyone could see that The Preds really had something special in both players.

In 2008, for the pair’s initial veteran contracts, Weber was awarded a three-year, $13.5 million deal while Suter’s contract was for four years and $14.5 million. Given their relative ages (Suter, now 26, is eight months older by virtue of a January birth date, while Weber turns 26 in August), David Poile, no doubt anticipating each player’s escalating value, offered the younger Weber a shorter contract term in order to afford the current opportunity to get one more deal in prior to Shea achieving UFA status as a 27 year-old. Suter, on the other hand, will turn 27 next January, thereby qualifying him as a UFA prior to his current contract expiration.

However, despite the pair’s virtual co-equal standing as of 2008, I don’t think anyone really saw this coming. With Weber’s 2010 Vancouver Olympics performance and runner-up Norris Trophy finalist this past season under his belt, Weber has become one of the league’s hottest properties. Combined with the insanity of all the ‘crazy money’ thrown at free agents a few weeks ago, the bar for signing a defensemen of Weber’s ilk has been set unimaginably high.

And while the world now falls all over itself trying to catch a ride on the Shea Weber bandwagon, if Ryan Suter, easily the most significant first round player ever selected by the Predators, is feeling a little underappreciated, who can blame him? Who could dismiss the validity of a little sibling rivalry between the two?

Coach Barry Trotz said recently that he believes both Weber and Suter will each win the Norris Trophy for the NHL’s top defenseman some day. Suter is that good. Their individual styles complement one another perfectly. Historically, Weber’s numbers have been noticeably off whenever Suter has been injured and out of the lineup. Suter, to a large degree, enables Weber to be Weber.

Grim Reality
However, the Preds face a grim reality in the proposition of re-signing them both. The money that Weber’s contract will command, either by negotiation prior to his arbitration hearing next week, or via the award he’ll receive thereafter if an agreement cannot be reached, will likely be more than the team could afford to match for Suter’s new deal. That basically places Ryan between a rock and a hard place, career-wise. Either he’ll voluntarily take less money (most likely, substantially less) to stay in Nashville (and ostensibly, to remain in Weber’s shadow), or insist on a short-term deal for near-equal pay, or ride out the season and go elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent next summer. It all depends on how important it is to him either to be the top dog or at least be paid at a level commensurate to his considerable talent.

Lest Preds fans grumble, it cannot be stressed enough just how good a defenseman Suter is —  for Weber, and vice-versa. It would be a true shame if the tandem had to become separated over money.

But whatever the parties involved decide, here’s hoping the Big Three’s contract issues aren’t a serious distraction for the upcoming season. Even if nothing gets done prior to next July, the 2011-12 season is one that a lot of folks believe could be special for the Predators.

Can David Poile pull a rabbit out of his hat and get the Big Three all back into the fold? Will Ryan Suter be willing to give the Preds the financial consideration it must have to make that happen? And if it doesn’t happen, how will that affect team morale for the upcoming season?

It will indeed be an interesting next five days.

 

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finis

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3 Responses to “Odd Man Out?”

  1. PredsFan July 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Great Article. It’s a shame that Suter doesn’t get the credit he deserves. However, I think he will get alot of spotlight next season.

    • AJ in Nashville July 28, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

      I agree. Let’s just hope he’s already re-signed with the Preds! :) Thanks for commenting!

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