The Nashville Predators raised eyebrows earlier this month by re-signing goaltender Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49-million contract extension.
While pundits, bloggers and fans debated over whether Rinne deserved such a lucrative salary, which will make him the highest-paid goaltender in the NHL next season, it was surprising the usually cost-conscious Predators invested an expensive, long-term contract in one of their players.
Last summer, Predators management and star defenseman Shea Weber found themselves in a contract standoff that required arbitration and resulted in a one-year, $7.5-million contract for the defenseman.
That raised concerns over the Predators ability to re-sign Weber, who becomes a restricted free agent again next summer, to a long-term deal.
The concern was justified as the Predators have for years been considered “a budget team,” meaning they couldn't or wouldn't spend up to the league's salary cap ceiling each season, preferring instead to remain close to the league minimum.
In fact, their current payroll is $49.6 million, which is third-lowest in the league, barely above the minimum of $48.3 million.
Heading into this season, the Predators’ priority was to re-sign Rinne, Weber and defenseman Ryan Suter.
After the Rinne signing, the focus shifted to Weber and Suter, the latter of whom is eligible for unrestricted free agency in July.
The Predators currently have more than $30.7 million invested in 11 players for next season, including Rinne's new deal.
If they were a team that typically kept pace with the rising cap ceiling, re-signing Weber and Rinne to expensive new deals wouldn't be considered an issue. But for a team that traditionally ranks amongst the lowest-spending in the league, there is concern Nashville won’t be able to keep all three.
Since it cost the Predators $7.5 million to re-sign Weber for this season, logic suggests it will cost at least that much to re-sign him for the long-term.
Suter, who is earning $3.5 million this season, could easily make as much as $6 million per season, and perhaps more, on next summer's open market.
Estimating it would cost at least $13 million to re-sign the two defensemen, plus Rinne's $7-million salary, the Predators could wind up spending around $20 million to keep “the big three” under contract long-term.
For a traditionally budget-conscious club, that means committing roughly one-third of their payroll to three players.
With that $30.7 million of payroll committed to next season, adding the $13 million that’s expected to go towards Weber and Suter would leave the Predators with a little more than $5 million to re-sign other key players (left winger Sergei Kostitsyn, center Colin Wilson, right winger Jordin Tootoo, defenseman Jonathon Blum, goaltender Anders Lindback) and still remain close to the $48.3 million floor.
Even if, as some pundits expect, the next collective bargaining agreement reduces the players' share of revenue, lowers the salary cap and rolls back salaries, the Predators will still have invested around one-third of their payroll into three players.
Predators GM David Poile could attempt to re-sign Weber and Suter to heavily front-loaded, long-term, cap-friendly contracts, but that would represent a significant shift from the way he's done business over the years. It also might not fly if the next CBA outlaws those types of deals.
Predators ownership could substantially increase payroll, but given how they've preferred to stay closer to the floor than the ceiling in recent years, it’s unlikely they'll transform overnight into spendthrifts.
The party line from management is that the priority is to re-sign Weber and Suter, but it remains to be seen if it can achieve this goal without sacrificing depth elsewhere.
Until Nashville actually re-signs those two, expect their names to remain fixtures in this season's trade rumor mill.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.