The No. 1 priority for GM David Poile this off-season will be the future of Shea Weber, who will become a restricted free agent July 1 if an extension isn't hammered out.
The general thinking is the Tennessee sky will fall if the team isn’t able to come to terms with its best player and captain and the face of the franchise, but, assuming he's looking for a payday in proper ratio to his top-end D-men brethren, would it not be in the Predators best interests to instead trade him?
Atlanta’s Dustin Byfuglien recently re-upped for five years at a cap hit of $5.2 million; 33-year-old Zdeno Chara pulled down a new front-loaded seven-year deal at $6.9 million per; and Duncan Keith parlayed a Norris Trophy into a 13-year (!) contract at an average hit of $5.5 million, with the Hawks forking over $7.5 mllion-plus in real dollars over the first six years. None of these three blueliners have Weber’s upside nor, arguably, are as good as the 25-year-old is right now.
It’s not unreasonable, then, to see Weber’s worth in the range of $7 to $9 million per. A hefty spend for any team, but especially one with a budget well below the cap ceiling, such as the Preds. Nashville is spending around $50 million this season and if that stays the same in 2011-12, Weber’s number could eat up 14 percent or more of the payroll. How will that impact Poile’s already-difficult task of bringing in free agents to help the Predators’ anemic offense (27th in the league at 2.45 GPG)? Weber's 39 points leads the team in scoring, that’s not a good thing.
But trading him makes sense beyond the dollars and cents. Nashville has the league's best young blueline corps and one of the best overall in the NHL (they finished eighth in our Defense Rankings from earlier this year). That, of course, is due in large part to Weber, a member of Canada's gold medal-winning Olympic outfit and a bona fide Norris Trophy candidate. But an equally large reason is the team’s depth at that position, led by Ryan Suter.
Though not the physical beast the 6-foot-4, 234-pound Weber is, Suter plays as many minutes (25 per game), has a similar points-per-game average (0.55 vs. 0.60) and a considerably better plus-minus (plus-23 vs. plus-9). He exists in Weber’s shadow (Adam Proteau named him to his All-Underrated Team), but he’d be the No. 1 D-man on many teams.
And Nashville has several quality youngsters who could soon slide into a first-pair role. The Preds’ top three prospects in THN’s upcoming Future Watch, which ranks each team’s players in the system, are blueliners: Ryan Ellis, Jonathon Blum and Roman Josi. And that doesn’t include 23-year-old Cody Franson (THN’s 50th overall prospect in 2009), who’s seen regular duty each of the past two seasons and has Weber size and some offensive flair.
But the principal rationale behind dealing Weber would be the return. Nashville needs ‘O’ and Weber would likely bag an unimaginable bounty that would push the team into the West’s upper-tier by creating balanced lineup with talent top to bottom. (Trading him before July 1 would also protect against the worst-case scenario where he signs an offer sheet the Predators are unwilling or unable to match and they end up with a bushel of draft picks). This team needs to win now, not later. The fans deserve it.)
Of course, I put the odds of Weber actually being dealt at about the same as me not getting relentlessly flamed below for the very thought. But that doesn't mean it isn't something that should be seriously explored.
Edward Fraser is the managing editor of The Hockey News. His blog appears regularly.
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