Shea Weber's leverage will never be higher

BY foxsports • July 16, 2012

These are franchise-determining days for the Nashville Predators — and, perhaps, also career-determining ones for captain Shea Weber.

He certainly is pondering his future after having former defensive partner Ryan Suter, once one of the three Predators cornerstones, to a 13-year, $98 million contract with Minnesota.

In less than a month, Weber will be 27, the same age as Suter. However, while Suter turned pro when he was 19, Weber got his start at 20. As a result, Suter was eligible for  unrestricted free agency July 1 while Weber is a restricted free agent, which allows the Preds to match any potential offer sheet Weber might sign with another team.

By almost any standard, Weber has emerged as the better player than Suter. For instance, Weber has finished as runner-up for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) each of the past two seasons; Suter placed eighth in the balloting this past season, the best finish of his career.

The central question now for Weber is whether he wants to remain a Predator for the remainder of his career — a question Suter ended up answering in the negative. Of course, Suter had the luxury of picking the team he wanted to play for and then was awarded the largest contract ever given to an NHL defenseman.

Weber will have a difficult time pulling off both, as the Predators own his rights at least for the 2012-13 season. (The age of free agency is one element to be collectively bargained; the current deal between the league and NHLPA runs out on Sept. 15 and negotiations are under way.)

But in Weber’s instance, the Preds have more leverage than they did with Suter, especially with the state of the next collective bargaining agreement uncertain. Over the weekend, reports leaked out as to what the NHL is proposing in terms of a new CBA.

Among the most significant terms is a proposed reduction in hockey-related revenue (HRR) from the current 57 percent to 46, according to USA Today. Based on those numbers, the salary cap would fall to about $52 million per team — about $18 million than what is currently set for 2012-13.

The highest amount a player can be paid is 20 percent of the cap, which, at present, is $14 million. Suter will be paid $12 million in the first and second seasons of his deal, with lower amounts in later years to bring the cap number down.

If the league gets its way — and it’s worth noting this is only a first proposal — Weber’s earning potential next season would be limited to $10.4 million, or $1.6 million less than Suter will earn each of the next two seasons and $3.6 million less than what the Preds can offer now. It’s hard to imagine a lower salary than Suter’s sitting well with Weber, who earned $7.5 million last season while Suter earned $3.5 million.

In addition, the league also proposed that contract lengths be limited to five years. So the largest deal Weber could sign would be for five years and $52 million — a total value of $46 million less than what Suter signed for.

Again, there is plenty of collective bargaining to be done, but it could behoove Weber to sign now instead of taking his chances. While many say that if Weber elects not to sign a deal, the Preds have no choice but to trade him immediately to recoup a return that would outdo what Columbus is asking for disgruntled forward Rick Nash.

But the Preds could play another card. Any team that trades for Weber before a new CBA is signed could offer him terms better than what Suter earned. But why should the Preds reward him for not wanting to stay? Teams are reluctant to punish players, but it’s more leverage. If the Preds want, they can hold on to Weber, which could diminish — perhaps significantly — his potential earning power once a new CBA comes into being.

The league also reportedly is proposing that players would not reach unrestricted free agency until they have 10 seasons in the league, as was the case under the CBA that expired in 2004. The limit currently is seven. Lengthening the requirement would keep Weber a Predator for three more years under that proposal.

So, Weber has enormous incentives to sign now before risking what a potential CBA might look like.

Both sides have kept a quiet lid on negotiations, but ever since Suter signed on July 4, retaining Weber rocketed to the top of the Preds’ priority list. It’s been 12 days now. On Sunday, the CBC's Elliotte Friedman reported that the Preds extended the deadline for Weber to sign his qualifying offer to Aug. 1, as is their right under the CBA.

Weber could sign the one-year, $7.5 million qualifying offer and become unrestricted at season’s end — if the new CBA allows — or he could try to sign something much more lucrative and long term, which would appear to be in the interests of both sides.

Some time in the next 15 days we should learn a lot more about the personal trajectory of Weber’s career — and, along with that, the Predators'.