Every now and then, an idea comes along that revolutionizes a company, an industry, or even the world. I’d like to present you with an idea that will probably never come to fruition, but is worth a minute or two of contemplation based simply on the possibility that it could.
There has been a lot of talk regarding the situation on the Nashville blue line this season. More specifically, everyone is wondering when and where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will sign on the dotted line.
One of my favorite hockey people, Jeff Marek, recently brought up an interesting possibility on his and co-host Greg Wyshynski’s podcast regarding the fates and futures of the Preds’ two young defensive studs.
All of the upcoming speculation is entirely dependent upon the mindsets and personal preferences of Weber, and to a greater extent, Suter. Since nobody who will talk really knows, all we are left to do is speculate.
The majority view is that Ryan Suter probably does not want to sign a contract with the Predators for a single cent less than Weber’s. Perhaps Suter has been the good sidekick long enough, and wants to be paid in a way that reflects the quality of player that he knows in his mind that he has been and will continue to be. Maybe there’s even a little excitement at getting away from “big brother,” in the same fashion that I believe exists with Bobby Ryan in his relationship with Anaheim Ducks teammate and fraternity president Ryan Getzlaf.
To take it a step further, maybe Suter thinks about legacy. The man is already the son of a man who helped to perform the Miracle on Ice, as well as the nephew of NHL great Gary Suter, who tallied an impressive 845 points in 1,145 big league games as a defenseman. Gary’s 1,349 penalty minutes don’t foster a legacy of Suters playing second fiddle to a big, bad caveman force of a blue liner either.
It could be that Ryan Suter wants to win Stanley Cups, which many people argue probably will not be accomplished in Nashville given the Preds’ paltry payroll policies. It could also be that he wants to go down in history as a number one, which many more people assert can never be achieved as long as Weber is on the same roster, let alone pairing. If this is the predominant emotion going through Suter’s head, then he probably will not be playing with Weber next season.
But regardless of how perpetual man’s need to be perceived as a top dog and remembered through the generations might be, not all people are governed by such insecurities. What if instead of going all Anakin Skywalker and crying about Shea Kenobi holding him back, Suter instead is moved by being half of a whole? What if he realizes how the pairing is in many ways the perfect pairing for today’s NHL? Suter shoots left; Weber shoots right. Both skate flawlessly. Weber drops the hammer to the tune of 89 hits through 42 games this season. Suter is slightly the more technical defensive player. Both have 15 points on special teams this season. Weber has 63 blocked shots; Suter has 60. They each have a responsible 26 penalty minutes this year. They both register in the plus department regularly (each has had just one minus season since being in the show, and both are scheduled to go plus again this time around). They were even drafted within hours of each other in 2003 — Suter went 7th, while Weber went 49th. And as is indicative of his slightly more threatening offensive game, Weber has 9 goals and 23 assists to Suter’s 5 and 20. The gap isn’t nearly what the “Shea Weber is by far the better player” camp would lead you to believe.
So despite being the son of a man on the 1980 Miracle team and the nephew of an all-time great, being drafted ahead of his now-more-coveted playing partner and putting up extremely similar numbers, Suter remains subservient to Weber in the minds of all the people that don’t matter. Hell, he even deferred to Brian Rafalski whilst the U.S. was cruising to the gold medal game in the 2010 Olympic Games largely behind Suter’s lockdown defensive play and smooth transitions to offense.
But what if Suter doesn’t care? What if he’s able to see the forest through the trees and decides that he rather enjoys playing with another great defenseman who is as talented and dedicated to his craft as Suter himself? Perhaps most importantly, what if Suter decides that his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup is making the move that also ensures he’ll never be nominated for a Norris? After all, playoff hockey shrinks the rink, and the teams that win are the ones that are able to play a tougher style than those that perenially flame out to lower seeded teams. What better way to keep the puck out of the net than to roll with a stud like Weber?
If Suter and Weber are open to the possibility of playing together for many more years, the question then becomes where. The first and most obvious answer is Nashville. For one, Weber is only scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer, meaning it would be more difficult to get out of town if he wanted to do so. But secondly, the Preds have more than enough cap space to sign both players to whatever contracts they reasonably wanted. The real question revolves around whether the Predators actually have the cash to make the deals, and also whether they would want to. They have young defensemen to restock the shelves with, and it would be hard to imagine a franchise that perennially hovers around the salary cap floor to up and give $24 million or so to three players every year (goaltender Pekka Rinne of course being the third).
If the Predators can’t or won’t pay Weber and Suter like kings, and for argument’s sake we are assuming that the two would like to play together, what team could and would sign them?
At this point, many fans write this Miami Heatles-esque scenario off as not within the framework of the honor of the hockey player, but I disagree. First of all, this league is a business. Second, to go to separate teams in the name of garnering that maximum contract amount and top dog on the blue line status would actually be less “honorable” the way I understand it. It would be putting money and perception ahead of winning and professional or even personal friendship.
Third, we’ve seen this before. Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne became so intertwined that “Kariya & Selanne” became an actual phrase in the late ‘90s while the pair sunburned opposing goalies’ necks by turning the red light on so often for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Pairs like these exist throughout the sporting culture — Kareem & Magic, Shaq & Kobe, Michael & Scottie, Montana (or Young) & Rice, Freeney & Mathis, Brady & Belichick, Xavi & Iniesta, or even Henrik & Daniel if we’re especially lazy. But Kariya & Selanne were a real thing; such a real thing that after Anaheim traded Selanne to San Jose in early 2001, Kariya skipped town in the summer of 2003 to chase a Cup with his bestie for a season in Colorado despite having just been to Game 7 of the Finals with a Selanne-less Ducks team. The Avalanche experiment didn’t work out for the pair, and they were both on separate teams the following season and never played together again, but deciding to take a pay cut to join forces with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and your former flame is a story that lays the foundation for a possible Weber & Suter tag team signing this summer.
So if both Weber and Suter decided to do this, where would they go? It would have to be a team that could win it all immediately and have sustained short-list relevance. It would have to be a team that not only had the cap space, but also the desire to spend to the cap while also being able to field the rest of its roster. And given their success as the liaison between a limited offense and one of the best goalies in the world, it would probably have to be a team with both its goaltending situation in good standing and substantially more offensive potential than the current Predators.
You could play around on CapGeek to try to find the perfect match, or just go the lazy route and assume that Philadelphia is the one and only team that would fit one or the other (or both, if they could just move that Bryzgalov contract…), but I believe there is one glaring match for all of these characteristics: the Washington Capitals.
If your response is anything like mine, you’re probably saying “shut up guy, you obviously haven’t done your homework as the Caps have a ton of long-term, big money contracts and there’s no way they could add two more and stay within the confines of the salary cap.” Well, actually it’s very doable. Let’s look at how it would get done.
As far as those long-term deals go, Alex Ovechkin is signed forever at a $9.5 million cap hit. Nicklas Backstrom checks in at $6.7 million for a similar time period. Brooks Laich will cost $4.5 million for five more seasons. Joel Ward is on for three more years at $3M per. After those four forwards, only Jason Chimera and Jeff Schultz are locked up beyond next season. That’s for the whole team.
The players who are coming off the books this summer are Alex Semin (who costs $6.7 million this season), Mike Knuble ($2M), Jeff Halpern ($825K), Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perrault ($1M combined), Mike Green ($5.25M), Dennis Wideman ($3.94M), John Carlson ($845K) and Tomas Vokoun ($1.5M). I know that looks like a lot to lose and/or replace, but the Caps are in the fantastic position of having 17 players under NHL contract for next season while still being just more than $19 million under the cap ceiling.
There are some questions that would need to be answered before the Weber / Suter coup could be pulled off: 1) Is Vokoun willing to play another season while being severly underpaid; 2) is Vokoun even in the Caps’ plans beyond this season, or is Braden Holtby ready to be a full-time backup to Michal Neuvirth; 3) how much do the Caps love Mike Green; 4) are the Caps crazy enough to make Semin a priority; 5) will new coach Dale Hunter force GM George McPhee (fellow Falcon, what up) to bring Wideman back; 6) how much of a raise does Carlson want, and how highly do the Caps value him; 7) are the Caps willing to force themselves to fill out the rest of the forwards on a budget akin to the wintery stages of the Oregon Trail; and perhaps most importantly, 8) do Weber and Suter believe in Alex Ovechkin?
These are a lot of questions to answer, and the mere existence of them may cause this article to look more like something that should have been published by Eklund, but I’m basing this analysis on math, reason, opportunity and absolutely no proclaimed inside information.
Let’s try to answer those questions. First, Vokoun signed with Washington last summer at an extreme discount. Most people assumed $5 million per season was a realistic price for Vokoun’s services, and that number even looked low after the Flyers inked Bryzgalov to that outrageous $5.6M-for-the-next-9-years contract. Instead, the Czech netminder took a 74% pay cut in the name of trying to do something he has yet to do: win in the playoffs. One could argue that Vokoun would probably be happy to come back and do it again next year, especially being a 36 year-old whose hourglass is getting bottom-heavy coupled with the prospect of signing the two beasts who have each blossomed since played their rookie and sophomore seasons in front of Vokoun in Nashville.
The question of whether Washington will actually welcome Vokoun back depends almost entirely on how this playoff season goes. If the lefty buckles or is usurped by his teammate and countryman Neuvirth, it could spell Czech-mate for the old guy in D.C. Perhaps the bigger issue will be whether Holtby is seen as a partner for Neuvirth or more of a tradable asset in the final year of his entry-level contract. Only the Caps know the answer to that one, but a capable and willing Vokoun can help to answer the one about Holtby in the latter.
On to Mike Green. The stocky defenseman was once hailed as the surprising new point scoring blue liner, in the likeness of Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey. Then the watchful eye of playoff scrutiny focused on Green, and it became obvious that his lack of defensive responsibility (or maybe even ability) was costing the Capitals when it mattered most. And now, we’ve moved from the “Green can’t play on a responsible, winning team” to “Green actually can’t play.” The guy has worked on his all-around game and actually gotten a little better at keeping opponents off the score sheet, but now he can’t seem to keep himself on the ice. Green has only managed to appear in 59 of a possible 126 regular season games over the last year and a half, and just yesterday underwent sports hernia surgery, which is expected to sideline him for a rather optimistic reported time frame of just 4-to-6 weeks.
I’m not trying to pile on Mike Green or act like I’m the first to say that his defense has contributed to the Caps’ recent playoff disappointments, but at some point Washington may want to decide to move in a different direction. That point would logically be in the next six months, since Green’s contract is up July 1.
Ah, the Semin thing. Just when it was universally decided that the winger is a bum, he goes and plays inspiring hockey that has some Caps fans second guessing whether telling him to take a hike is the right move. Let me answer this one: if he wants anything close to his usual $6.7 million, thank him for his services, shake his hand, and move on. If we’re considering the possibility of the Weber / Suter splash, there’s really no money for a guy like Semin, and that’s okay. In fact, if winning is the goal, I’d argue it’s perfect. And Caps fans, as much as you’re coming around on Semin right before decision time comes up, how would you feel about him knowing that bringing him back killed any chance of pulling what could be a historic defensive coup? I’m giving you this one chance to get a grip and decide if you truly want to shift the identity of the Washington Capitals hockey club. This stuff is time-sensitive too, so decide quickly and choose wisely.
Now onto the Hunter – Wideman issue. First off, Dennis Wideman has been good for the Capitals this year. In fact, he’s been very good. The D man seems to have taken past criticism to heart and actually improved his game markedly, and is no longer putting up disappointing point totals following his 50-point campaign in 2008-09, nor is he playing the crap defense that allowed him to go -33 the past two seasons. On top of his resurgence (31 points in 44 games this year, for those wondering), there is also the connection with new head coach Dale Hunter, who coached Wideman during the defenseman’s last three seasons with the OHL’s London Knights. The two seem to be good for each other, and the argument can be made that signing Weber and Suter while losing Wideman and most of the rest of the free agents might not even be that good of a trade off for the Caps. The Caps’ blue line would be rather thin after the top pairing if they were to pull the Nashville coup while losing Green, Wideman and Carlson.
Carlson himself remains a question mark moving forward. On the one hand, he’s far outplayed his entry-level contract, which expires this summer. On the other hand, he’s sort of not that amazing defensively and it’s not the Capitals’ responsibility to pay players for past performance. While Carlson is always highlighted by NBC during Washington’s numerous nationally televised games, there is the sense that the front office might be more wed to Karl Alzner, whose game falls more in line with what the Caps claim they want to become. Alzner is signed through next season, but after that the decision will have to be made on him.
Assuming Weber and Suter take about $15 million in salary cap hits, Washington would be left with about a million bucks a piece to fill out four roster spots. Additionally, they would already have Roman Hamrlik, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Alzner under contract, in addition to Weber and Suter if our fantasy land becomes reality. That’s seven right there, albeit possibly not as deep a seven as a team would love, but certainly a serviceable corps. If they were able to move any of the other contracts, especially Hamrlik or Schultz, that would free up some more cap space to sign either Wideman, Carlson or a better forward. But it isn’t totally necessary. Besides, GMGM can surely pawn some bad contracts off on Colorado, right?
Okay, we’re almost there. We’ve parried most of the attacks on the possibility of inking both Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to contracts in the nation’s capital. Now we have that issue of having not a lot of money to fill out a few forward spots. In reality, I don’t think that would be a problem that Washington couldn’t overcome. For starters, they already have the big boys locked down. Ovechkin and Backstrom are taken care of, as is Laich, Ward, Chimera, Marcus Johansson, recent hero Matt Hendricks and Cody Eakin. Of that crew, only Johansson is a real concern, as the second-year center is stepping up large for the Caps and scheduled to become RFA in the summer of 2013. A pay raise for him is all but certain, but the possibility exists that Washington values the opportunity to bring both Nashville big boys in more highly than they do locking down a player with only second-line opportunity given the existence of Backstrom on the roster.
As far as the rest of the forwards go, it’s funny how you can usually find a solid team guy willing to play for a million bucks under the premise that his team should be awesome. They don’t have to be all that offensively talented either, as coach Hunter is renowned for his willingness to “play the shit out of” his star players (a Wyshynski quote). If fewer minutes per game are required, all of a sudden players that are lower on the NHL totem pole become acceptable fill-ins.
The numbers work themselves out. Washington signing Weber and Suter can be done. It cannot be done without making some tough decisions, but pointing that out is not exactly a counter-argument. This is life. Tough decisions have to be made all the time. McPhee has shown an ability to do just that, and it doesn’t hurt that his job security is being warmly debated. Making a move like the one we are talking about guarantees a couple of things. One, it buys you a year or two. Two, it guarantees your spot in the unemployment line if it doesn’t work out quickly. Like the great Jim Rome is always saying on his radio show, “Give me an A, or give me an F.” A coup like the one I’m talking about could turn out to be an A or an F for the franchise, but it certainly wouldn’t be a lazy C.
Speaking of which, the man wearing the C in Washington hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed or without lots and lots of criticism. In my heart of hearts, I believe that Alex Ovechkin is a winner. I’m just not sure he’s a captain. While I’ve talked about the possibility of Ryan Suter putting his pride aside and continuing with his pal Shea Weber, I wouldn’t expect the same out of Ovie in voluntarily relinquishing the C on his sweater. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing he could do. It also may convince the Nashville duo that he is committed to winning above all else in this league, and might even be the catalyst to the formation of one of the great squads of his time. But like I said, let’s use math and reason to analyze this game we love. No rational bone in my body feels like this is an action that Ovechkin will actually take. Therefore, we are left to wonder and speculate as to what is going through the minds of all of these individuals acting out the drama that we call pro hockey. Suter may not even want to play with Weber, let alone actually pack up the car and hit the road with him. But as interested observers, wouldn’t it be something?