As the Nashville Predators’ ownership and management spent the past five days debating whether to match the 14-year, $110 million offer sheet signed by their captain and franchise player Shea Weber, they had to look only 250 miles to the southeast for a worst-case scenario.
In Atlanta, a larger, wealthier city with more northern, hockey-oriented transplants than Nashville — albeit a much less successful NHL team — the Thrashers could not agree in 2010 to a contract extension with their captain and the face of their franchise, Ilya Kovalchuk. The Thrashers traded Kovalchuk, defections at the box office continued, financial losses mounted and, not much more than a year later, the franchise was sold to a group that moved it to Winnipeg.
Oh, by the way, Kovalchuk helped lead his new team, the New Jersey Devils, to the Stanley Cup Final this past season.
The Thrashers represent a cautionary tale for the Predators. In Nashville, the Predators have achieved a far greater deal of organizational stability and created a culture of success, having advanced to the playoffs seven of the past eight seasons and to the second round each of the past two.
Yet the implications of not re-signing Weber and allowing him to depart via the offer sheet that the Philadelphia Flyers had signed him to last Thursday must have sounded alarms to those who run the Predators. The team already had lost a homegrown All-Star and Weber’s former defensive partner, Ryan Suter. An unrestricted free agent, Suter signed a 13-year, $98 million deal with Minnesota, in effect resetting the market for elite defensemen.
Allowing Weber to depart for Philadelphia for first-round picks in 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16 could have sent the message to the fan base, which the club has taken great pains to cultivate in recent seasons, that the Predators could not afford to compete at the highest levels. Among the most powerful factors for fans to purchase tickets is hope and a belief the franchise is going in a positive direction. To use another analogy, the Montreal Expos of the early 1990s were among the best organizations in Major League Baseball, like the Preds in the NHL, at finding and developing talent. But the Expos could not retain that talent and, ultimately, found themselves in a city that was more hospitable to their sport.
The Predators, who entered the NHL in 1998, have made slow, steady inroads despite a past sell-off of players that came at a time of ownership instability. Two current Flyers, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen — both All-Stars last season — came in a trade from Nashville. Despite that setback, the Preds have regrouped and begun winning and attracting fans. They hope to join the ranks of other nontraditional success stories such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars. Not coincidentally, the Preds’ two top executive officers, CEO Jeff Cogen (Dallas) and COO Sean Henry (Tampa), came from two of those franchises.
Some of those franchises, all of which have won the Stanley Cup, have struggled in recent seasons — both on the ice and at the box office — but the result is that they have built a fan base. When Tampa Bay, which won the Cup in ’04, advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in ’11, it helped to reignite a latent interest.
The Preds are on an upward arc. They posted 16 regular-season sellouts in 2010-11, six more in the playoffs, a franchise-record 26 sellouts this past season and five more in the ’12 playoffs. Potentially losing both Weber and Suter, two of the franchise’s cornerstones along with goalie Pekka Rinne (under contract for seven more years), could have derailed all the progress the organization has made.
The difference between the Weber and Suter situations is two-fold. One, Weber was restricted, so the franchise held the hammer in its ability to match. Two, Suter, for all of his skill and value, is replaceable. Weber is not. Not only does he bring leadership, but he brings size, intimidation and an offensive component that perhaps only Boston’s Zdeno Chara — nine years Weber’s elder — can match in today’s NHL. Weber has 99 career goals and 164 assists in 480 games. Suter has 38 goals and 200 assists in 542 games. The Predators can now plausibly tell their fans they can ice a team that will contend for the playoffs for the foreseeable future and might someday crack through to a conference finals or even the Stanley Cup Final.
Philadelphia, having struck out on a bold gamble, faces a bit of a quandary. They have tried to build their defense to combat the two-headed monster that Atlantic Division rival Pittsburgh represents in the form of centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, each of them Hart Trophy (MVP) winners.
Not only must the Flyers have to worry about the Penguins, but on Wednesday the New York Rangers, the Eastern Conference’s top regular-season team in 2011-12, acquired one of the game’s elite forwards in Rick Nash from Columbus. The Flyers lost defenseman Matt Carle via free agency to Tampa Bay, and Chris Pronger, 37, once one of the league’s best defensemen, appears as if his career is in jeopardy because of concussions.
That is why Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren put all his eggs in Weber’s basket. There are only so many defensemen of Weber’s talent.
It’s also why today there is jubilation in Nashville and resignation reigns in Philadelphia.