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Shea Weber contract magnifies disparity in NHL markets

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

In one sense, the Philadelphia Flyers did the Nashville Predators a favor by signing superstar defenseman Shea Weber to a mammoth restricted free agent offer sheet. The Preds now know what it takes to retain Weber – matching Philly’s 14-year, $110-million deal with Nashville’s franchise cornerstone – and with the new investors the organization has brought in recently, Tennessee’s NHL team has little choice but to match (unless it’s prepared to totally alienate the fan base it’s worked diligently to build).

However, at a time when NHL team owners are in full tantrum/clawback mode over the league’s labor relations with the Players’ Association, Flyers owner Ed Snider has just taken the Predators’ corporate head and turnbuckle-smashed it into the glass with a furious intensity that would make Weber proud.

Predators fans looking for somewhere to focus their collective stink-eye are advised to direct it at Snider and the band of big-market owners, not Weber or former Preds blueliner Ryan Suter. The multi-millionaire and billionaire owners, including Minnesota’s Craig Leipold, who acquired Suter and star left winger Zach Parise via separate 13-year, $98-million unrestricted free agent contracts, are the ones who control all the NHL’s meaningful reins of power and have the ultimate authority on any contract offered to a player.

And if initial reports are accurate, Snider signed off on a contract that will pay Weber a $1 million salary in each of the first four seasons…and $52 million in bonuses. Fifty-two. Million.

Philadelphia’s offer sheet isn’t exactly the same circumvention as Ilya Kovalchuk’s first contract with New Jersey, which was rejected by the NHL for violating the “spirit of the salary cap,” but it is a blatant “spiritual” circumvention nonetheless and a giant middle finger from Snider to all small-market teams.

That’s why owners such as Snider (a notorious hawk in all previous negotiations with the NHLPA) and Leipold (who got a sweetheart deal that removed him as Predators owner and gave him the keys to the much more profitable Wild) are such monstrous hypocrites when it comes to collective bargaining negotiations. They haughtily demand NHLers tighten their financial belts each and every time the league needs a new labor deal, then proceed to make a mockery of the agreement from the minute after it’s signed to the second before it expires.

Snider must know what will happen if the Predators fail to match their offer sheet for Weber. He has to be aware crestfallen Nashville fans will be justifiably soured on the way the NHL conducts its business and as a consequence will be less likely to invest their time, emotion and money in the league. He can’t be ignorant of the fact small-market teams functioning as de facto feeder systems and farcical versions of parity will be a drag on large markets and the overall profitability of the game. He also has to know if Nashville does match his offer, the financial strain on the franchise will make it next to impossible for the Preds to improve the team around Weber.

Snider didn’t care. He did it anyway. It didn’t matter to him that if Weber departs, most dyed-in-the-wool Preds fans will feel like their collective heart had been ripped out, thrown on the floor and had an Irish Riverdance performed on top of it. He is a cold-blooded competitor who will use every available tool to give himself an advantage without any concern for the ramifications. To be fair, Snider is not the owner of the entire league and his primary responsibility is to his franchise. If he didn't offer Weber this deal, another owner surely would. But he cannot operate in a vacuum of self-interest throughout the life of a CBA and then turn around at the end of it and complain about an inflationary process he and his fellow owners basically crafted themselves in the previous labor negotiations.

Given these big-money payouts – and it isn’t just this year; Brad Richards, Chris Pronger, Roberto Luongo and other star players in both big and small markets have benefitted from owners frothing at the mouth during the current CBA and paying whatever they deem necessary to land a player –why are NHLers being asked to help the owners save themselves from themselves? Clearly, it can’t be done. Clearly, regardless of the new labor landscape, owners who are pressured by their own egos and/or ongoing investment in a franchise, such as Snider, or by a perceived need to keep up with the Joneses, like Leipold, will always find ways to flex their financial muscles a-la vintage Hulk Hogan.

But it’s beyond shameful they view the NHLPA and the league's budget-conscious franchises as the Hulkamania shirt that has to be ripped off their torso and torn to ribbons before the megalomaniacal pose-down begins.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

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