Suter’s contract brings cloud over Preds

When the Nashville Predators resume their season tonight in Minnesota following the NHL All-Star Break, they do so with the knowledge that the sky is the limit for their season.

They also do so with a bit of a cloud hovering overhead.

With 64 points, the Predators are just three points out of the top spot in the Western Conference. Only three teams in the entire league have more points than they do. The Preds own the league’s second-ranked power play and are ninth in goals-against per game.

At the season’s outset, general manager David Poile said he thought the Predators, one of the youngest teams in the NHL, would be better in the second half than in the first. Thus far, that is how it has played out.

Nashville went 12-2 in its last 14 games before the break and goalie Pekka Rinne, a finalist last season for the Vezina Trophy (best goalie), is rounding into form. He has won nine straight, 18 of his last 20 decisions and ranks second in the NHL with 28 wins.

Amidst that seemingly sunny backdrop is the contract situation revolving around All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter, who is one of the franchise’s three cornerstones along with Rinne and fellow All-Star defenseman Shea Weber.

Suter’s contract situation, which has been a thorny issue all season, as he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent as of July 1, became a focus of media attention – perhaps even the biggest story — over the weekend at the All-Star Game in Ottawa. On Friday, Suter let it slip that he would not agree to a contract extension until the season was over.

He did not mention this little tidbit to Poile until after he said it aloud in Ottawa, where hockey media from all over North American and the world had gathered. One can only imagine the general manager gulping on his coffee as his read this in his newspaper the next morning (if that, indeed, is how people like Poile get their news anymore).

Whether it was intentional or not, this is why managers and agents often say that they refuse to “negotiate in the media.” Misunderstandings can complicate sensitive issues.

The next day, Suter felt his position had been mischaracterized. He turned on the television in the Canadian capital and saw it being reported that he planned to test the open market, where he would be one of the league’s most sought after free agents this summer. This caused Suter to call a reporter and clarify his position. It also caused him to call Poile and explain what he had said. Again, misunderstandings.

It was written here a few weeks ago that Suter, who is not the most comfortable in the spotlight, would not be thrilled having to answer myriad questions about his contract status at the All-Star Game. That the situation would flare up as it did, nonetheless, was not foreseeable.

What most concerned Suter was what his teammates would think – and there is that cloud hovering over an otherwise blissful Predators season. (It’s worth noting that another defenseman in an identical situation to Suter’s, Carolina’s Tim Gleason, re-upped on Monday for four years and $16 million.)  

“It made it seem like I was giving up on my teammates and I don’t like the sound of that, because it’s not true at all,” Suter told national hockey writer Pierre Lebrun.

On Monday, Predators coach Barry Trotz and the team reacted by saying all of the right things. As reported in the Tennessean, center Mike Fisher said, “There’s a lot of good things happening, and we all hope he’s here for a long time. That stuff always plays itself out in whatever way. Right now our focus is on the stretch and winning with whoever we got here.”

Fisher is a veteran and he has seen worse circuses, notably the one surrounding his former Ottawa teammate Dany Heatley when Heatley requested a trade. Significantly, Fisher’s words also made real the possibility that Nashville knows it must go, if necessary, without Suter, a player who unquestionably makes the Preds better.

Suter acknowledged that one of the consequences of his actions is that Poile is left with a bad option: that he might have to move the player before Feb. 27’s trading deadline or risk getting nothing in return for him come July 1.

At this point, that does not seem a likely option. The team is playing too well and is starting to be taken seriously in some circles as a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup. Trading Suter would undermine all of that. The tension is likely to mount over the next four weeks as the deadline approaches. However, once it passes, the situation will be rendered moot.

It looks like Suter has forced Poile to wait it out. Reportedly, dollars are not the over-riding issue. Suter is said to want to see the team make the moves that would show it is capable of competing for a Cup. The Preds already have committed $49 million over the next seven seasons to Rinne. They also want to re-sign Weber, the captain, to a long-term deal, but he, like Suter, does want to negotiate until the season ends. (Weber’s situation is less acute because the team retains his rights for one more season after this one, as he is a restricted free agent.)

Poile always has the option to trade Suter’s rights after the season ends but before July 1. It’s a move he has made before with Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. It’s certainly one he’d prefer to avoid. Plus, trading a player then, as opposed to at the deadline, can mean getting less of a return.

In a best-case scenario, Poile makes a few moves nearing the deadline – as he has in numerous cases in the past – the Preds advance a few rounds and Suter elects to stay. Alas, success is not preordained.

At this point, unless Suter undergoes a change of heart, it seems as if it’s a situation with which the organization must live – happily or otherwise — for the time being.