The Nashville Predators enter the 2011-12 season riding the high of the franchise’s first ever playoff series victory. They are led by head coach Barry Trotz, who enjoyed his first full day as Preds boss on Sidney Crosby’s eleventh birthday. Trotz has been the only head coach the franchise has ever known, and this continuity along with Trotz’ fierce dedication to physical play and defensive responsibility have been essential factors in the franchise’s slow and steady rise up the ranks of the NHL’s western conference.
And although it came as no surprise, the team also was able to bring back captain Shea Weber, the most popular pick for the Norris Trophy this season, albeit, through arbitration.
This should be a time for celebration and excitement over new goals that may be achievable in the near future. If some of the Preds’ young forwards can come good early and help out Martin Erat, David Legwand, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher and the like, the team may even be able to allow a goal here and there and still win games.
But to me, the situation surrounding the Predators looks like a house of cards, with everyone looking around and holding their breath, lest they be the one that blows the house down.
The reason I believe this is that the team is essentially built around three players within Trotz’ system: Weber, fellow defenseman Ryan Suter, and goaltender Pekka Rinne. I’m not saying the team doesn’t have young talent, or that a franchise death watch is in order, but rather that the health and success of the franchise over the next few years is almost entirely dependent upon these three players.
Problem #1: Weber, Suter and Rinne are all in the final years of their contracts. Potential solution: the Preds have the 26th highest payroll in the league, and can easily extend all three without worrying about the salary cap ceiling. But that’s just to say that it is possible for the Preds to sign the three players that the team is currently dependent upon. It’s not to say that they will.
Problem #2: The Predators will have to extend Weber a qualifying offer of at least $7.5 million for a season before July 1, 2012 if they want to avoid him becoming an UFA. That’s a lot of money, but again, the team should have it to spend. On top of that, they must know that Weber is worth it, since a Norris candidate can be had for less money than Christian Ehrhoff in Buffalo.
Problem #3: Are Weber and Suter looking to each other’s commitment to the team? This is the problem I see. It’s easy to assume that Nashville can just throw money at the problem and sign all three big time players to long-term deals and solidify their western conference relevance for years to come. It’s harder to actually pull that off, especially if one of them believes the other will leave.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that the new year rolls around and Weber is still not extended. Suter may look at this and see it as a sign that the club is not serious enough to win a Stanley Cup in the duration of his playing career. Conveniently enough for him, he’s an UFA on July 1 if he wants to be. And why wouldn’t he want to be, given the goofy contracts that were handed out to remedial NHLers this past summer? Hmm, so to not get serious and lock down Weber could spell the departure of Suter.
Similarly, why wouldn’t Weber take his partner’s status with the team into consideration in his own contract talks? If Weber feels like Suter may leave, then what incentive is there for Weber to re-up with a team that will have lost his two best running mates in consecutive years (see: Dan Hamhuis in Vancouver)? Men turning 27 years old aren’t looking to sign their one huge contract with a team looking to rebuild. By the time the puck drops in October 2012, that’s exactly the ages that Weber and Suter will be. So now, to not get serious and lock down Suter could spell the departure of Weber.
Well now, this is shaping up to be a fine mess for the Predators if they’re unable to keep both D men happy and on board. The same can be said for Rinne, although I think there is a different dynamic to goaltenders. Rinne could certainly test the waters next summer, but there are a finite amount of teams that will have an open spot at starting goaltender and a lot of money to plug it with. Conversely, almost every team would try to make room for Weber.
And can I just point out that problem #4 just may actually be the Preds’ payroll figure? Sure, being 26th in the league means you have a lot of cap space, but it also means you’re probably a team that doesn’t spend a lot of money on payroll. Suter and Rinne will probably require raises at the end of the season, and Weber may also. That $7.5 million figure is certainly high, but these salaries keep getting more and more out of control every year, and Weber is better than almost every player that receives any contract.
But assuming that Nashville is willing to spend the money to re-sign its three stars, they still must be able to assure each of them that the team is serious about continuing its progression and eventually winning a Stanley Cup. Communication will be key. So will the team’s record for the first four months of the season — before those last few weeks prior to the trade deadline. If the team is outside of a playoff spot, the chatter will grow loud and the inquiries frequent, and don’t think that Weber and Suter won’t be listening at least a little.
With the players that they have and the style that they play, the Predators should be alright this year and compete for one of the last three playoff spots in the west. But the big questions are, will they still have the players that they have, and will all three indispensable ones have both feet in the water? If not, the Preds will go from playing a 7-game series to playing 52-card pickup.