About the time the Nashville Predators were disposing of the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs, I had dinner with a couple of friends when the topic of the Preds’ success came up. My buddies had been in the Bridgestone Arena a couple of nights before and were commenting on that experience, when suddenly talk turned to the difference between the talent on the roster now as compared to what it was in Nashville’s first years of existence.
One of my friends remembered the early days, when a certain Predators defenseman lived in his neighborhood. He’d see the player out walking his dog from time to time, and had a genuine respect for this particular player, but… well, let’s just say the guy was aging a bit and wasn’t the fleetest player to lace up skates in the NHL at the time.
“I’d look at him and have a hard time believing he was an NHL player,” my buddy said. “Now, I can’t imagine him ever seeing the ice for this Predators team.”
He’s right. Consider the results of the Professional Hockey Writers’ All-Star voting last week. Captain Shea Weber was a first team All-NHL selection as a defenseman, and teammate Ryan Suter was sixth in the voting among all defensemen. Goalie Pekka Rinne finished third in the voting among all at his position. No other NHL team’s combination of defensemen and goalies made the impression on voters that Nashville’s did.
How big of a deal is that? Since the Predators began play in 1998, Weber’s selection last season was the first time the franchise has ever had a first team All-NHL player. Rinne, a second team pick last year, remains the only second-team selection in team history.
Of course, there’s a downside to that: free agency means that the Predators can’t keep players forever. The team’s chief concern right now is re-signing Suter and Weber to new deals. Suter will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, while Weber is a restricted free agent. Weber received $7.5 million in arbitration last year, and Suter will probably get about the same per year with whoever signs him.
The good news? The Predators’ ownership group has shown a willingness to pay top dollar not only through the one-year deal for Weber last year, but also in the seven-year, $49 million contract that Rinne inked in November.
The bad news? There’s only so much money to go around, and paying either Weber or Suter what they’re worth makes it harder to keep the other. Of course, there’s some talk that the two like playing together, so it could be a double-or-nothing proposition for the Predators this summer.
Thus, this Predators ownership group faces its first real crisis since the new ownership group took over in late-2007. It’s hard to go back to penny-pinching ways once you’ve had a taste of winning, and the passion for the Predators has reached a fever pitch over the last couple of years.
I spoke with Predators Executive Vice President Chris Parker earlier in the spring about this coming day for free agency. Certainly, the Predators think they’re ready to compete with the big boys.
“I think we are well-positioned organizationally from a business perspective, from a hockey operations perspective, I think we have a short- and long-term vision that’s going to allow us to be very successful and only time will tell where we end up and what success we have,” Parker said. “But our stated goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and I think we’re in the best position we’ve ever been in to pursue that and hopefully achieve it.”
If it plays out that way, Nashville’s new day could well turn into a new era — complete with the championships that this team fell just short of this spring.