Sunday is the start of NHL free agency and for the Nashville Predators that means that All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter, whom the team drafted seventh overall in 2003 and who has played for the Preds for the last seven seasons, is no longer their exclusive property.
Preds general manager David Poile has not given up hope of re-signing Suter, but Suter, who ranked third in the NHL last season in average time on ice per game, is the top free-agent defenseman on the market in a pool that is not terribly deep. As such, teams with plenty of cap room – notably, Minnesota, Detroit and Pittsburgh — could enter a bidding war for Suter’s services, which could potentially make it difficult for the Preds to match. The Preds’ situation is compounded by the fact that they are trying to re-sign captain Shea Weber to a long-term deal. Weber, who has finished as runner-up for the Norris Trophy (given to the NHL’s top defenseman) the last two seasons, is a restricted free agent and earned $7.5 million last season while Suter earned $3.5 million.
Along with Weber and goalie Pekka Rinne, Suter forms the team’s foundation. As Poile said two weeks ago when asked if losing Suter would be devastating, “Would it be a bad thing? Absolutely? Would it seem like it’s unfair? Absolutely. But are we going to roll up the carpet and say that’s it? Not a chance. We’ll find a different way. It’s what we always do.”
In keeping with that spirit, here are five potential replacements the Preds could attempt to acquire. According to the Web site CapGeek.com, a database of NHL salary information, the Preds need to spend the most money to reach the league’s salary floor, which is set for next season at $54.2 million. The Preds need to spend $19.2 million to hit the floor, the minimum that all teams are required to spend on player payroll. Perhaps that number is heartening, then, to Preds fans who are hopeful they can retain a player in Suter that coach Barry Trotz has said numerous times in the past he thinks will someday win the Norris.
If not, here are the potential left-shooting replacements who could be Weber’s future defense partner (Suter is a lefty, which complements Weber as a righty):
1. Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary
Age: 28 Size: 6-4, 212 2011-12 Stats: 5 goals, 24 assists, minus-21, 25:57 per game Contract: Two years remaining at $6.6 million. Comment: The third overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft, Bouwmeester has lost some of his luster since he ranked among the league’s elite, allowing him selection to Canada’s national teams at the 2004 World Cup and ’06 Olympics. His garish minus-21 on a mediocre team last season might have something to do with that, but his average time on ice ranked sixth in the NHL, one spot behind Weber. He plays a finesse game like Suter. Combined with his great size, he has frustrated observers at times for a perceived lack of menace to his game. An Edmonton native, he and Weber would share a kinship as fellow Western Canadians. He is durable, owning the league’s longest consecutive games played streak at 588. Bouwmeester, a two-time All-Star, has tallied 65 goals and 220 assists in 717 games. In his last three seasons with the Florida Panthers from 2005-06 to 2007-08, he scored 42 goals. Having just traded for defenseman Dennis Wideman and then signed him to a five-year, $26.25 million contract, there is a feeling that the Flames could make Bouwmeester available via trade. If so, the Preds would need to send some major assets north, including a package that would likely start with either Roman Josi or Ryan Ellis. Bouwmeester’s contract is expensive, but it is probably equal to or less than what they might have to pay Suter; plus, he only has two years left on it.
2. Matt Carle, Philadelphia
Age: 27 Size: 6-0, 205 2011-12 stats: 82 games, 4 goals, 24 assists, plus-4, 23:01 (tops on Flyers) Contract: Unrestricted free agent. Comment: After Suter, Carle will be the second-most sought after defenseman on the market. He is coming off a season in which he earned $3.8 million. The Flyers are still attempting to re-sign him so that he does not hit the open market and still might. With Chris Pronger’s career in jeopardy because of concussions, the Flyers desperately need to retain him. His draft year is the same as Weber and Suter’s, as he went 47th overall in ’03 to San Jose – two picks before the Preds took Weber. He has proven himself a reliable 35-to 40-point defenseman, only slightly less than Suter’s 40-to-45. Preds would only need to spend money, to give up assets, to acquire him.
3. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh
Age: 31 Size: 6-1, 200 Contract: $4 million in 2012-13, $5 million in 2013-14, $5 million in 2014-15 2011-12 stats: 73 games, 2 goals, 25 assists, plus-9, 23:00 per game Comment: Somewhat like Bouwmeester, he was once considered a top-flight defenseman, but now is seen as a player who might be slightly past his prime. The Minnesota native was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2006, but not in 2010 when he played only 22 games because of injury. He has played more than 73 games only once in the past five seasons, but is a playoff veteran with 52 games under his belt, though he has a minus-11 career mark in the postseason. One of the only ways he might become available via trade with Pittsburgh is if the Penguins, who will be major players for Suter, end up landing Suter. The oldest of the group here, Martin’s contract terms are comparitively cheap.
4. Keith Yandle, Phoenix
Age: 25 Size: 6-1, 190 2011-12 stats: 82 games, 11 goals, 32 assists, plus-5, 22:20 Contract: $5.25 million in 2012-13, $5.5 million in 2013-14, $5.75 million in 2014-15 Comment: Preds fans saw enough of him in the playoffs to know that he was one of the Coyotes’ top players. He is youngest of the group, but also more expensive Martin. Having reacquired former ‘Yote Zbynek Michalek, there is a sense that Yandle could be available. (Some of this could have to do with the unsettled ownership situation surrounding Phoenix, which is operated by the league.) Yandle might play a bit too much of an offensive style to fit in smoothly with the Preds/Weber. It also might be an open question as to whether he can log the kind of minutes – mid 20s – that Trotz doles out to Weber and Suter.
5. Jason Garrison, Florida
Age: 27 Size: 6-2, 218 2011-12 stats: 77 games, 16 goals, 17 assists, plus-6, 23:41 Contract: Unrestricted free agent Comment: Garrison is coming off a break-out season in which he benefitted greatly from Panthers assistant coach Craig Ramsay’s tutelage and philosophy, in which defensemen are encouraged to join the rush. Because of the absence of a proven track record (he had played only 113 NHL games prior to last season), he faces questions as to whether he might be able to duplicate last season’s performance. He earned $700,000 last season and while he is likely to reap a huge raise, he will represent a bargain in comparison to what Suter is set to earn.