The news couldn’t have been much worse for Predators fans: star goalie Pekka Rinne will be out of the lineup for a month because of a bacterial infection in his hip. It’s not the end of the world, mind you, but the absence of one of Nashville’s two key cornerstones almost certainly will result in the team struggling.
More importantly, it will illustrate why the unthinkable with this franchise has to be thinkable – and doable – relatively soon. The Preds have to trade Shea Weber.
If you’re a Predators fan and you haven’t thrown your computer or smartphone against the wall after reading the previous paragraph, hear me out. I’m not arguing that dealing Weber will be a panacea for all that ails the team. But the moment the Preds matched the 14-year, $110-million offer sheet the Philadelphia Flyers extended to him in the summer of 2012, the clock began ticking on his stay in Nashville.
Yes, retaining their captain's services was a victory for the NHL’s small-market teams, but that doesn’t mean it was a sound practical decision. The 28-year-old carries a $7.8 million salary cap hit every year until 2026 – and even though Predators ownership no longer is doing things on the cheap, they’re still only 23rd overall in payroll. This is not a team that will spend to the cap ceiling every year, especially when the ceiling begins rising again (which should happen beginning next summer). And so Weber’s salary – Nashville’s most expensive – is an obstacle toward building the type of depth necessary for a true Stanley Cup contender.
Their goaltending situation is a perfect example: with Rinne gone, Nashville’s replacement is rookie Carter Hutton (three career NHL starts) and the backup will be Magnus Hellberg (zero NHL minutes played). If GM David Poile had Weber’s money to play with, there’s little doubt he would go out and sign a veteran as a stop-gap measure. And once again, the Predators are a team that is having trouble scoring. Last season, they had the league’s second-worst offense (2.27 goals-per-game); this year, they’re fourth-worst in goals-for (1.90). A Weber trade could directly address this perennial problem.
I know what you’re going to say next: without Weber on the roster, Nashville’s defense would suffer tremendously. In the short-term, that’s probably true. However, the team’s great fortune in having Seth Jones – who already is looking like a franchise defenseman – fall to them in the 2013 draft will offset the damage.
So too would the haul Poile would receive in a Weber deal. Look around the league and ask yourself if there's ever been a better time to put a star defenseman on the market. Look at what Philly was prepared to surrender to the Preds in their offer sheet: four first round draft picks. That was at a time when the Flyers were relatively stable. What do you suppose owner Ed Snider would tell GM Paul Holmgren to give up now that their defense corps is such a mess? I’d guess a lot. I’d guess a hell of a lot. I’d guess it would be close to the equivalent of the Gross Domestic Product of many third world countries. And what do you think a team like the Oilers would gladly give to Edmonton for Weber? I'd start with one of Ryan Nugent-Hopins or Taylor Hall and go from there. (And remember, Weber's deal didn't include a no-trade clause. Unlike most players of his stature, he's got little say in the matter.)
Anytime an NHL team trades away a fantastic player and person in the prime of his career, people will be upset. But the wisely managed teams have the courage to be bold because it makes sense for the best interests of the franchise.
It may hurt to acknowledge that’s where the Preds are at with Weber. But once you remove any emotional attachment you might have to seeing Weber in a Nashville uniform, you can see the prospect of trading the most famous Predator ever isn't a bad thing at all. It sets the stage for better days.