With Suter gone, Weber becomes top priority

The wait is over and the Nashville Predators now have to go to Plan B, as life begins without All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter for the first time in seven seasons.

It hurts, having lost such a quality player to the Minnesota Wild — a player whom the Preds drafted and developed. But it could have hurt more. If Suter had chosen the Detroit Red Wings, the Preds’ long-time Central Division foe and the preeminent franchise in the league over the last two decades, it would have felt like a knife to the back of the organization and its fans. (Incidentally, if the NHL’s proposed realignment plan ends up going through as part of negotiations for its new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Suter likely would be back in the Preds’ same division or conference, whatever it is called, potentially as soon as 2013-14.)

With a wife from Minnesota and an offer coming from a team in a state that is perhaps more like his native Wisconsin than any other with an NHL team, it’s easier for those around the Preds to accept a choice that would seem to be made for lifestyle changes, even if Minnesota has muddled along for almost 10 seasons now, unable to win a playoff round since 2002-03.

In a conference call on Wednesday, Preds general manager David Poile didn’t sound like those were consolations to him, as he said he was “very, very disappointed” that Suter told him he was leaving for “family reasons”, along with a 13-year, $98 million deal — an identical one was agreed to by free agent left wing Zach Parise of New Jersey on Wednesday. Poile said Nashville also offered a 13-year deal. The Tennessean reported that the Preds’ final offer was for $90 million.

In what no doubt was salt in the wounds, Poile said when he spoke to Parise’s agent earlier in the process, Parise’s agent told him the player would be more interested in the Preds if Suter already were under contract. The idea that the two US Olympians were a package deal seems to be growing stronger.

Later, Poile said, “no question it’s a setback for us” and he seemed to have trouble reconciling the news. He cited some notes of his from a meeting with Suter and Suter’s agent in November.

“He said at the time he is not got going anywhere else,” Poile said. “He is signing with the Nashville Predators. I mean, it’s a quote.”

Immediately, the Predators’ greatest concern has to be re-signing captain Shea Weber, also a defenseman. The Preds can find substitutes for Suter, albeit ones who are lesser versions than the original and Poile said the Preds would now begin that process. Weber, a restricted free agent, hardly has a player who is his comparable. In his seven seasons, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Weber has 99 goals, averaging 18.5 over the last four seasons — an astounding number for a defenseman in the current era — and is about as hard of a hitter as there is while still ranking top five in the league in time on ice. Not all big men are such great skaters.

Boston’s Zdeno Chara is the closest thing — on a par and maybe even better (though last season’s Norris Trophy voting would not reflect that) — but Weber, still 26, is eight years younger. And while Weber finished as runner-up for the Norris (best defenseman) the last two seasons, it would be hard to imagine a general manager who, if he were starting over and building a team, would not take Weber as his first choice on the blue line.

Poile appears ready to offer Weber the same terms as he offered Suter, if not better. Weber, whose agent has said he will wait for Suter to sign first, would be wise to take them. Contracts of 13 years seem as if they are going to go away in the league’s new CBA. Poile said he had yet to speak with Weber’s agent on Wednesday but promised to get in touch with him as soon as possible.

“I have to find that out now,” Poile said of gauging Weber’s interest.

In many ways, Suter leaving is not the worst-case scenario for Nashville. Both Weber and Suter leaving would be. If Weber does not agree to the proposal, then the Preds urgently need to reassess their situation, possibly trading him at once and, in a way, starting something of a rebuild for a team that has advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the last two seasons.

“I guess you’ve got to let me play out that process,” Poile said of what he would do should he be unable to re-sign Weber.

If Weber agrees to become a Predator for what would be most of the rest of his career, then in many ways, the Preds could be better off. Much of their pursuit of Suter at such outlandish sums was motivated by reasons other than hockey ones. The organization needed to prove it could retain a top-flight player who began his career in Nashville. Retaining Suter might have helped also to retain Weber — a point that Poile made on Wednesday.

However, if the Predators had pledged so much money to two defensemen, along with goalie Pekka Rinne being owed $7 million for the next seven seasons, the club might have run into problems putting a team together around that trio — especially if provisions in the new CBA reduce the cap from its present $70 million ceiling. In addition, reports were that Suter’s deal would be front-loaded with as much as $28 million due in the first two seasons, a heavy burden for the Preds if they had to do that for both Weber and Suter.

As hard as it might seem for Preds fans, other options are out there to replace Suter and, in an economic — if not pure hockey — sense, they are better ones. Free-agent defenseman Matt Carle, also 27 like Suter and with 38 points and a plus-4 rating with Philadelphia last season, looms. Trades might bring in Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin or Calgary’s Jay Bouwmeester, each suitable replacements for Suter.

All is not lost, even if the disappointment of rejection doesn’t make it feel that way.