The recent $7.5 million contract awarded to the Predators Shea Weber is a major blow to the Nashville organization for a number of reasons. When Weber straps on the skates this October, it will mark the first time the club has iced a player with a cap hit north of $4.5 million (aside from 17 games of Peter Forsberg in 2007…which obviously doesn’t count).
That’s because the Predators have a pretty strict internal budget which typically disallows shelling out the premium dollars. The most expensive roster Nashville has ever produced was the 2010-11 iteration worth about $52 million, which included a couple of buy-outs in Marek Svatos and Alexander Sulzer. This is the same team, remember, that sacrificed Cody Franson this summer so they could unload Matthew Lombardi’s relatively small $3 million/year salary. Clearly, pinching pennies is a necessity in Nashville.
Which is the reason the club has had an unofficial “hard cap” of $4.5 million for individual players since the lock-out. David Poile realizes that in order to build a team with any sort of balance he won’t be bale to start handing out the big dollars to any one player. This is also at least part of the reason the club entered arbitration with a reported $4.75 million offer to Weber: it may have seemed ludicrously below market value for a player of his stature, but that’s about the top-end the team is usually willing to shell out to an individual. Alas.
Weber and his $7.5 million cap hit won’t effect the immediate future of the team. With the expulsion of Lombardi and Franson as well as the buy-out of JP Dumont and low-cost addition of Patic Hornqvist, the Predators will spend about $50 million on their roster this upcoming season (which seems to be their internal salary cap). The real problem is what faces them next summer.
Weber will once again be a RFA meaning another contract in the same ballpark will be in order. Unfortunately, he will be joined by the likes of Jonathan Blum, Niclas Bergfors, Cal O’ Reilly, Nick Spaling, Blake Geoffrion, Colin Wilson and Sergei Kostisyn, nearly all of whom will be looking for at least moderate raises. The major blows come in the form of pending UFA’s Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne however.
Suter is Weber’s regular defense partner and is somewhat overshadowed due to the latter’s booming shot and higher offensive ceiling. The truth is, though, Suter is an excellent all-around defender and likely one of the keys to Weber’s success in the Nashvile. Last year, no Predator faced tougher circumstances on the blueline than Suter. He had the highest quality of competition rating according to behindthenet, a team-low zone start of 44.7%, but still led the blueline in terms of possession with a corsi rate of +4.34/60. The season before was similar. He was also second on the team in total ice time per game (25:12) behind Weber himself and first on the club in terms of even strength ice time (19:44). Only three other defensemen averaged more ES time per game than that last year: Duncan Keith, Marc Stall and Jay Bouwmeester. Clearly, the 26-year old is a heavy hitter.
Because Suter doesn’t put up the same counting numbers as Weber he’s not likely to be as expensive. That said, he’s not going to be cheap either. This summer, guys like James Wiseniewski and Christian Ehrhoff cashed in as free agents when they went to market. As such, there is little doubt Suter will be one of the most sought after free agents in the league if the Predators aren’t able to re-sign him. A long-term deal with a cap hit north of $5 million is all but assured.
The Preds nightmare will no doubt expand if Pekka Rinne has another Vezina worthy campaign this coming season. The only starter with a better save percentage than Rinne’s .930 last yer was Tim Thomas at .938. Rinne was also top-five amongst starters in terms of even strength save percentage (.932). The 28-year old had been good in his previous two seasons as the Predators so it remains to be seen if he can sustain those career bests going forward. If he can, the Predators face a significant conundrum: although I’ve argued in the past it usually doesn’t make sense to pay too much of a puck stopper, a guy managing top-five save rates in the league is a likely exception to that rule. Unfortunately, that also means another potential cap hit higher than the organization’s individual player ceiling of $4.5 million.
All told, a conservative estimate of the future values of Weber, Suter and Rinne is about $18 million in cap space ($7.5M, $5.5M and $5M respectively). That would represent 36% of the club’s total player budget expended on just three players, or 13.6% of a full 22-man roster. If we include the cap hits for David Legwand, Martin Erat and Mike Fisher (4.5M, 4.5M and 4.2M), the number rapidly balloons to 31.2M for six players (or 62.4% of the NSH budget on 27% of the roster). That would leave the team about $1.175 million per player to fill out the rest of the roster.
None of this addresses the fact that Shea Weber is unlikely to remain in Nashville in the long-term anyways, if only because players who go to arbitration with their clubs almost never stick around longer than they have to. Arbitration can be harsh process for the player in question, which is why clubs tend to try to avoid it whenever possible. So even if Poile was somehow able to convince Suter and Rinne to take huge discounts or dealt them away from pennies on the dollar, it’s entirely possible Shea Weber will bolt for free agency as soon as he’s able regardless.
What this all portends is a bidding war for Shea Weber’s services this coming trade deadline. It may not matter what position the Predators are in at the end of February 2012 – be it first or last in the Western Conference. The long-term probability of Weber remaining in Nashville is doubtful from a number of angles. Dealing him for the best return possible may be their only option.