It's not looking good for Shea Weber's long-term future with the Nashville Predators.
The two sides went to arbitration on Tuesday, which caught observers by surprise, as it was expected an agreement would be reached to avoid the process.
In June, the Predators filed for salary arbitration, a move considered a protective measure to prevent a rival club from attempting to sign Weber to an expensive offer sheet.
Though the two sides had been negotiating for some time, it's believed they were too far apart to reach a deal. The Tennesseanreported the Weber camp went before the arbiter seeking $8.5 million, while the Predators countered with $4.75 million.
The Predators offer raised eyebrows, though as CBC's Elliotte Friedman suggested, they probably knew Weber would seek a high number and theirs is merely pure strategy.
The hope is the arbiter will settle on a number roughly in the middle, somewhere around $6.25 million, considerably less than what Weber sought.
Regardless of the numbers, the fact arbitration was needed to settle the issue casts serious doubt over Weber's future with the club.
The Tennessean reported the awarded contract would be for one year, as determined by Weber's agents. That means he'll be a restricted free agent again next summer, giving he and the Predators another opportunity to negotiate a longer deal.
Weber would again, however, become a tempting target for an offer sheet. Having already taken him to arbitration, the Predators wouldn't be able to do it again.
Uncertainty over the next CBA could reduce the odds of his receiving an expensive offer sheet, but it doesn't rule out the possibility.
While Weber could re-sign a new, long-term deal before next summer, players who go through the arbitration process usually don't remain with their teams beyond their arbiter-awarded contract due to the fact the process can be nasty.
That's why so few scheduled arbitration hearings occur, with agreements usually worked out between the two sides before the hearing date.
While the Predators low offer was a strategic move, it is difficult to justify. Weber, the team captain, is coming off a season where he was a Norris Trophy candidate alongside Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom. Chara earned $7.5 million last season, while Lidstrom banked $6.2 million.
Management also has to take into consideration defenseman Ryan Suter and goaltender Pekka Rinne will be eligible for UFA status next summer, plus there's the uncertainty over how the next collective bargaining agreement will affect payrolls. They must ensure there's enough money available to retain those two.
Failing to avoid arbitration and re-sign Weber to a long-term extension, however, could have repercussions in their negotiations with Suter and Rinne.
If this process ultimately ends up driving Weber out of Nashville, it could send the message to Predators fans that the front office is more interested in balance sheets than building a winner.
It doesn’t make sense to put all their eggs in one basket, but for a club hoping to build up their fan base in a non-traditional hockey market, low-balling their most marketable player won't help.
Damien Cox of the Toronto Starsuggested the Predators should consider shopping the blueliner for assets they can afford to retain if they're unwilling to spend what it takes to keep Weber in the fold.
He certainly won't be the only observer to make that suggestion.
Regardless of the arbiter's decision, expect Weber's name to figure prominently in the trade rumor mill throughout the upcoming season, becoming a distraction for the Predators.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 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.