If the Nashville Predators spent the last 13 seasons chasing the Detroit Red Wings – which they did – what does it mean now that they have finally caught them?
More specifically, what does it mean to their efforts to try and re-sign All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter and what does the series victory mean to Suter?
In exactly two months and one week Suter will hit the open market if the Predators have not re-signed him. With Nashville awaiting its opponent in the Western Conference Quarterfinals – either Chicago or Phoenix – after eliminating the Red Wings in five games, Suter ranks seventh in the playoffs in average time on ice per game at 27:42 and was a huge part of that effort. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock referred to him as one of the Predators’ three “franchise” players, along with fellow All-Star defenseman Shea Weber and goalie Pekka Rinne, after the final game.
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It seems that the central conversation to the contract negotiation with Suter has not been dollars and cents but more a question about the team’s ability to compete at the highest level.
“We have a lot of good players in our room,” Suter told ESPN.com at the All-Star Game in Ottawa. “Not saying you gotta go out and get a big-name guy — just the right piece.
“I want [to] help our team win the Stanley Cup and being in a place that we can go get more players and the pieces we need to help us win.”
In the ensuing weeks after those comments, Nashville did exactly that. On the final day before the trading deadline expired, the Predators picked up wing Andrei Kostitsyn and checking center Paul Gaustad, who won 55.2 percent of his faceoffs in the first round against Detroit. Kostitsyn tied for fifth on the team with two points in the very low-scoring series and, significantly, finished plus-2.
Nashville’s depth was such that the Predators were able to win without defenseman Hal Gill, arguably their most important pre-deadline pick-up, as a lower-body injury sidelined Gill. And, of course, wing Alex Radulov, whom the team finally persuaded to rejoin it after four seasons in the KHL, led the series in points with five. His plus/minus rating of plus-5 also ranks among the best in the Stanley Cup playoffs right now.
The trick, however, is that those four players all are, like Suter, pending free agents. Gill, Gaustad and Kostitsyn are unrestricted while Radulov is restricted. (Weber also is restricted, but, unlike Radulov, he would not appear a threat to play in the Russia next season if he and the Predators cannot agree to a long-term deal.)
Predators general manager David Poile acknowledged on Monday that much of the future hinges on which free agents the team can re-sign.
“I really like our team,” he said. “I think we could have a four- or five-year plan, but that will change based on who signs and doesn’t sign.”
Right now, it’s hard not to like the Predators’ team. After Detroit was eliminated on Friday, Babcock discussed how Nashville was deeper and despite the fact that three of the Predators’ four wins came by one goal, Babcock expressed his opinion that the series was “not close.” Considering that Detroit has a much higher payroll than Nashville, that’s significant.
Asked what he would have thought if he were told before the series that the Predators would win in five games, Suter expressed confidence in his team.
“Well, I mean, we’ve got a good group of guys here,” he said.
It remains early in the playoffs, but things are looking up for the Predators. With the exception of the St. Louis Blues, they finished with more points than all of the teams remaining in the West. While the Blues won the Central Division, in head-to-head competition, the Predators went 4-1-1 against the Blues.
If the Predators win the next round, will that satisfy Suter? If they advance to the Stanley Cup final? Or is it more about long-term success?
Poile pointed out that Nashville has made the playoffs seven of eight seasons now. Other than Detroit and New Jersey – combined winners of the Cup seven times starting in 1995 – few other franchises can match that record.
When Suter spoke at the All-Star Game, his comments were mostly about how he did not want to re-sign until after the season had ended.
“We’ve never had a timeline or deadline,” he said. “We’re just focusing on winning. Everything else will take care of itself.”
For the second straight season, Nashville has advanced to the second round, so the Predators are indeed winning. The question regarding Suter is whether it’s enough yet.