After facing a tumultuous offseason in 2012, in which their two franchise-level defensemen were both free agents, the Nashville Predators have locked up their top defense pair for the next seven years.
They matched the offer sheet to restricted free agent Shea Weber, the team’s captain, last July, securing his rights for the next 14 years with $110 million deal. On Monday the Preds announced that Roman Josi, 23, had agreed to a seven-year, $28-million contract.
At the recently concluded International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, Josi was named Most Valuable Player in leading his native Switzerland to a silver medal.
Among players who competed at the Worlds were such top NHL stars as Ilya Kovalchuk (Devils), Steven Stamkos (Lightning), Henrik Sedin (Canucks) and Claude Giroux (Flyers).
When Ryan Suter elected to leave Nashville for Minnesota last July as an unrestricted free agent, it was hard for the Predators to find any silver lining. (Suter subsequently finished as a finalist for the Norris Trophy, given to the league’s top defenseman.)
At the time Suter left, general manager David Poile hoped the next Ryan Suter was already on the Predators’ roster.
The Predators are clearly hoping that Josi is that player.
“Last year,” Poile told reporters in Nashville on Monday, “we saw growth with Roman Josi almost like we have never before.”
Josi has only spent two years in the league, but he shows strong promise, as a top skater and for his offensive skills. On the lowest-scoring team in the NHL last season, Josi recorded 18 points in 48 games (.375 points per game), the seventh-most on the team. As a rookie, Josi, in a smaller role, totaled 16 points in 52 games for .308 points per game.
However, his defensive side still needs work. His minus-7 rating ranked 31st among 34 skaters who played for the team last season and was second-worst among the defensemen. He finished a plus-1 as a rookie but, again, that was not while facing the opposition’s top lines as often as he did last season.
As a rookie, Suter earned .225 points per game, which increased to .293 his second season. But he was plus-7 as a rookie and plus-10 in his second season (2006-07) on a Nashville team that earned the most points in franchise history.
For Josi, the trick will be mastering the finer defensive points of the game. With Weber, runner-up for the Norris in 2011 and ’12, ranking among the game’s top offensive defensemen, the pair needs to find a balance.
If that occurs, they might evolve into the league’s top defensive pair, similar to Weber and Suter for the latter’s final two years in Nashville. While it may seem premature to compare Josi to Suter, clearly, he’s clearly being groomed for a substantial role with the organization.
Josi’s $4 million average is a very reasonable price for a young top-line defenseman. By getting Josi’s deal done now, it could enable the Predators to be more active in the free-agent market when it opens on July 5.
Earlier this offseason, the Predators moved to lock up right wing Patric Hornqvist, 26, who has led the team in goals for two of the last four seasons, with a five-year, $21.25 million deal.
According to the website CapGeek.com, which tracks NHL salary information, the Predators had $16.8 million in cap room entering the season with 17 players under contract. At this point, they will have $12.8 million in cap room with 18 players under contract.
Their key remaining free agents are virtually all restricted free agents. Victor Bartley, who is coming off a strong rookie season, is one. The same holds true for Jon Blum, a former first-round pick who played on the third pair last season.
Other key RFAs are center Nick Spaling, whose nine goals tied for fourth on the team last season, and wing Matt Halischuk.
The Predators also might need to find themselves a backup goalie, especially with Pekka Rinne coming off hip surgery that requires a four-month rehab period. Rinne is still expected to be healthy by the start of training camp.