By Stu Hackel
If the Predators' decision to match the Flyers' $110 million RFA offer sheet to Shea Weber late Tuesday wasn't quite a declaration of independence for Nashville's hockey team, it was something close to that. No longer will the Preds be a slave to pro sports' small market mentality, forced to surrender top-tier and complimentary players when they can no longer afford them.
That had been the Preds' way, sadly, for too long. Their difficult financial picture (made even worse at one point when a California con man didn't have the $23.5 he was investing as an ownership partner) always meant that when important players neared the end of their contracts, they'd end up elsewhere. They were always saying goodbye, it seemed: Kimmo Timonen, Dan Hamhius, Scott Hartnell, Andy Delmore, Cliff Ronning, Vern Fidler, Tom Fitzgerald and probably a few more I can't recall at the moment. Nashville was a team they loved and they left.
But no more. It started last fall when the new ownership group, headed by Tom Cigarran, and GM David Poile locked up goalie Pekka Rinne for seven years at $7 million a season. They pledged they would do everything they could to keep their top defensive tandem -- Weber and Ryan Suter -- together regardless of the cost. They said they'd spend to the cap limit, if they needed, to make the Preds a Cup contender. This was a different message, a brand new tune, coming out of Nashville and the fans loved it.
They have to love it even more today. These guys were true to their word. They did everything in their power to hold on to Suter, but couldn't compete with the lure of family, friends and familiar surroundings in Minnesota. For once, it wasn't about the money.
And now they've done everything in their power to keep their captain, a two-time Norris Trophy runner-up. It likely wasn't easy. They'll have to live with a contract they didn't negotiate, and who knows what that means in real-world terms? Did the Preds ownership group have to go deeper into their pockets to come up with the $13 million bonus, payable on Weber's signing, that the Flyers negotiated for them? Cigarran said at an unusual outdoor press conference with fans in attendance on Wednesday afternoon (video) -- an event filled with justified self-congratulation and defiant words to big market teams that would pick on them -- the real fiscal issue faced by the Predators was not coming up with the bonus money now as much as committing that much in the future and jeopardizing resources to keep the club strong down the road. Whatever it took, they did it.
In their press release to announce they'd match the offer -- which most observers figured they had little choice but to do -- the Predators called it "the most important hockey transaction in franchise history." That's not an exaggeration. In one move they kept their best player and team leader; reassured their fans and Weber's teammates they remained committed to winning; sent a message to rest of the league, including future free agents, that they want to be a place to play, not a place to leave; and told their business partners that they planned to remain competitive and continue building a competitive franchise despite the inherent limitations of playing in the 29th largest media market in the United States (among NHL teams, only Buffalo is smaller and that's a traditional hockey market).
It's a huge psychological boost for the club and everyone connected with it.
Well, maybe everyone. All this laudatory prose and sweetness above could prove fleeting. In a press conference he conducted from his British Columbia home after the team's event in Nashville, Weber found the Predators' "exciting....The team stepped up and showed that they’re going to spend with the best of teams." But this story isn't over just because Nashville matched the Flyers' offer.
There are pretty good indications Weber was ready for the move to Philly and wanted to go -- the biggest indication being he negotiated and signed an RFA offer sheet with another club that was designed to be difficult to match.
He was supposedly in shock when Suter, his partner on what had been the best defensive tandem in the NHL, skipped town and many speculate that he actually began souring on the Preds when they went through team-initiated salary arbitration last summer. That didn't have any impact on his play last season; he was a First Team All-Star selection.
This offer sheet business is something different, however. If you listen to his agents, it was Weber's own declaration of independence, that he wanted a fresh start that he won't have now. Instead, he'll be back in Nashville without Suter. What is that going to mean this coming year and the years ahead?
In his press conference, Weber refuted his agents' statements, saying, “I guess that was (agent Jarrett Bousquet’s) feelings. Like I said, I was never a part of any of that. I didn’t make any statements publicly. I love the city of Nashville. I love the fans and my teammates. It’s a very positive thing that the ownership has stepped up and shown they’re going to be a team that’s going to spend to the cap and bring guys in and be a successful team.” Weber may honestly feel that way but with his fate now sealed as a Predator, it would be alarming had he said anything else.
"I have no second thoughts at all that he’s not going to be as good as he’s ever been before," Poile said Wednesday. "All of this will be put behind us. It’s business. I don’t even want to hear about it. I don’t even need to talk about it. I’ll never ask Shea about how his summer was up to this point. He’s now with us for 14 years.”
That doesn't mean all is well in the Weber-Nashville marriage. Weber's agents told various media sources and Weber confirmed on Wednesday that he would like a no-trade or no-movement clause inserted into the new contract. By the rules of the CBA, the Predators only have to keep Weber for one season and his camp says they want the security of knowing that the long-term deal they negotiated actually means he'll be there long-term.
Weber and his agents know that one of the more problematic aspects of the offer sheet for the Predators was that if they didn't match, they'd be robbed of their best player now and be compensated only in the future with four consecutive first round draft picks. Reportedly, Poile frantically tried to negotiate a trade that would bring NHL ready players back to the Preds in exchange for Weber when he learned of the RFA offer sheet but nothing materialized. So what is to prevent Nashville from dealing a costly and perhaps unhappy Weber a year from now and getting some valuable players in return?
One can certainly see their point and it's possible the Predators see it that way too. If they feel they'll have a happier, more committed Weber if a NTC or NMC is added to his deal, it would seem like a no-brainer.
At Wednesday afternoon's press conference, Poile wouldn't make a firm statement on whether he'd agree to a no trade clause or not. While he joked -- or maybe not -- that he might not last that long himself, Poile did say he wanted Weber to be part of the Predators for 14 years.
Of course, Rick Nash had a NTC in his deal that seriously limited Scott Howson's ability to get true value for his captain and best player -- that and the $7.8 million cap hit Nash's contract carried (and, for the sake of argument, we'll overlook the fact that Howson himself negotiated that contract and the NTC). What if, a few years from now, the Preds and Weber can no longer co-exist? Fourteen years are, after all, a very long time.
On his Puck Daddy blog, Greg Wyshynski argues that the Predators shouldn't give Weber any sort of NTC or NMC. His belief is that while the Preds could "soothe their captain and provide a soft landing for all involved, the Predators could offer some type of NMC after the first year of the deal," it's an impulse they should avoid.
Weber exercised his right to sign with the Flyers, and the Predators have every right to withhold protections that they won't deal him to Columbus in 2013. If that sounds spiteful … well, I believe 'business' is the preferred nomenclature. It's just business when Rick Nash doesn't want to go to Canada. It's just business when Dany Heatley doesn't want to go to Edmonton. And it's just business if the Predators decided to flip their franchise player to the highest bidder without Weber having any control over the destination.
Fact is, Weber chose this path. He chose a 14-year, front-loaded deal while the CBA allowed it, instead of a high-yield one-year contract that would have led him to unrestricted free agency. In an attempt to control his own destiny, he ceded all of it to David Poile....
No reason, outside of some quaint, folksy notion of devotion that Nashville has always seemed steeped in during the Poile/Trotz regime. That the Predators, their players and their fans were a family battling disrespect and disregard from the outside world. Well, 'folksy devotion' went to Minnesota and signed an offer sheet with the Flyers.
Maybe Wyshynski is right and that's part of what it means when a franchise does what the Predators have done in taking this step away from the small market mentality and joining the ranks of the NHL heavy hitters. Maybe it means you have to abandon the quaint, folksy notion of devotion to be more ruthless and cold-blooded.
Maybe, in the world of pro sports, when it comes to winning it all, that's where it's at.
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