For over a month, Predators fans held their breath waiting for any kind of news in the much-publicized Shea Weber free agency ordeal, in which their captain and the face of the franchise was hanging in the balance.
Weber has stated in the past that his main priority is to stay in Nashville and he would like the young corps of defensemen, Ryan Suter, and goaltender Pekka Rinne to be retained for the future as well.
This situation became difficult to address immediately because Suter and Rinne won't become free agents until after next season.
The Preds front office knew this dilemma would arise. Nashville GM David Poile has played this game time and time again. Balancing a small-market payroll while trying to keep his key players intact.
However this is a situation beyond anything the Preds have dealt with in the past. The franchise has never had a player as dominant as Weber in their brief history, much less two other pieces as important and talented as Suter and Rinne.
The Preds had a plethora of unrestricted free agents at last season's end, and it became no secret that many of them would not be re-signed in an effort to clear as much salary as possible.
In free agency, Nashville let go of players that totaled over $8.5 million from last season and freed up nearly $3 million more in trades, all in a quest to re-sign Weber and the other young players when the time comes.
So finally, after a month of speculation, Weber was awarded an NHL-record $7.5 million for this season, and chose to sign a one-year deal.
The first reaction for most Preds fans was probably one of two things.
First: Why he didn't sign a longer term deal?
That is a valid point, but it's easier said than done. Weber's eligibility as a restricted free agent ends after the 2012-13 season, so signing him to a one-year deal still puts him under team control after this season ends and he enters free agency yet again.
So, clearly, with no promises that Weber will stay longer than two years, Nashville has put themselves in the best position by either resigning him again after this year, or making sure the team receives the ridiculous compensation it will bring from the team that would sign him away.
For example, in this off-season, a player making Weber's salary would require two first-round picks along with a second and third rounder in return, and an RFA making Weber's likely salary for next season (more than $7,835,219) would command four first-round picks in return.
Long story short, if Weber signs somewhere else after this season, Nashville will be receiving four first-rounders.
Second: Why is he getting so much money for a one-year deal?
Again, a valid point, but the anger and confusion may want to be directed at the arbitration process rather than the Preds decision making.
Yes, there was some big-league posturing early this week when social media outlets were reporting Weber's camp asked for $8.5 million, and Nashville countered with $4.75 million, barely a raise over last season.
Let's face it though, neither of those dollar amounts were going to happen, and the judge was going to inevitably award Weber something in the middle.
As one of the top players in the entire league, Weber deserves every penny of the salary he will be making next year and the Preds know this. They also know that they must work around that cap hit in order to keep their key pieces, stay successful, and make Weber want to stay a Pred beyond this season.
If Weber will truly command a raise from $7.5 million after this season the Preds could be in a little bit of trouble when it comes to affording to keep the nucleus together, but it may not necessarily be an impossible scenario.
Suter and Rinne will be making $3.5 and $4 million respectively this year and will likely get more lucrative contracts as well at season's end.
The inevitable question is this: if the Preds can't afford all three pieces, who is gone?
An unfortunate situation for sure, and it will be a tough one for the Nashville fans to accept.
Suter is arguably more deserving of a bigger pay raise then Rinne, as he is also one of the best young defenseman in the league. And at only 26, he may be more of a risk to let walk rather than re-sign.
In addition, Suter is arguably a better actual defender than Weber, who is more offensively potent than his fellow blueliner.
Rinne established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the league last year (2.12 GAA, .930 SV%), but is already 28 years old and would turn 30 shortly after he begins play under his next contract.
With the Predators' remarkable history of finding and developing goaltenders and the potential to keep Weber and Suter signed together long-term, some may feel that Rinne would make the most sense as the odd-man out in Nashville amongst the three key players.
That leaves Weber, who is not free to leave Nashville without compensation for another two years, and that could work in Nashville's favor.
Another option for the Preds is that if Weber doesn't feel Nashville is the best long-term destination for him, they could let him explore free agency as a restricted free agent and allow him to sign somewhere else—if a team is willing to pay the inevitable four first round picks it will take to get him.
Although Preds fans are probably left with a sour taste with the thought of all three being free agents at the same time, the bottom line is Weber opting for a one-year deal and allowing himself to end his contract as an RFA puts Nashville in a situation in which they have options moving forward, rather than the possibility of all three leaving at the same time.
Regardless of how the team plays and the numbers work out, one would have to assume after this season that at least two of the big three will be back in a Preds uniform, and that is a situation many teams in this league would like to be in.
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