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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Shea Weber on Suter & Rinne: "We're Going To Be 'Talking'"

(Note: Jack Hillen update below.)

After the arbitration award news broke, the Nashville Predators and Shea Weber had a conference call to provide their public-facing comments and answer questions. I thought the most interesting response was to Craig Custance's query when the Sporting News reporter asked how closely Shea Weber will be watching Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne and what they decide to do longterm? Weber's response:

That's what kind of makes this deal more interesting. We're all going to be up again after one year. The only difference is those two are unrestricted. I'm sure obviously we're going to be talking with each other, or what not, because all three of us are pretty close. We'll be interested in seeing what everyone's looking to do -- especially those two. If they're unrestricted, if they are going to sign longterm, if they're going to do a shorterm. I don't know. But I'm sure we'll hopefully get on the same page and we can play together for a long time.

(Click to the 16 minute mark of this video for the audio)

That makes complete sense. Weber is going to be talking to his Preds teammates, Suter & Rinne, and "hopefully get on the same page." Weber just wants to make sure he's not going to be the only man standing in NSH amongst a bunch of kids with no real shot at the ultimate prize. 

Now consider this for a second: what if one of The Big Three wants to do his own thing? Heck, what if Shea wants to do his own thing. 

In fact, could it not be argued that by not signing longterm with NSH this time around, Weber is already doing his own thing. It's not like there was some sort of blackout period Weber needed to avoid with regard to speaking to his buddies, Suter & Rinne, during his negotiation.

In other words, Weber has already spoken to Suter & Rinne about their longterm plans. (In fact, David Poile probably talked to both of them as well since he's been allowed to do so since July 1). Considering Weber's hesitation to sign longterm, its apparent he didn't like what he heard from either or both Suter & Rinne. 

Despite it being "stressful," Weber followed through on the arbitration hearing. That's not exactly demonstrating conviction that he'll be able to work in concert with Suter & Rinne, either with regard to having each of them stay with NSH or about the team's ability to keep all three in Preds uniforms.

So lets say that was Weber's original strategy, what to do when the plan doesn't come together? Well, you need a Plan B. If Weber is openly talking to his Preds teammates, who's to say he's not talking to his good buddies that are now ex-teammates? For example, Dan Hamhuis and Cody Franson. Or those from his junior hockey days, that's right,  The Kelowna Connection. Lets not be naive -- of course he's talking to them too. Information is power especially in contract negotiations.

Also, its not entirely apparent that NSH is headed in the right direction with regard to building on the momentum from their first playoff series victory this past spring. Rather than adding to the foundation, a swath of veteran experience was removed from the lineup in what seemed like one fell swoop. Below is a list of players that left Nashville sometime over the last six months in some form or fashion:

Relinquished Players
FJoel Ward17:048029$3.000UFA, WSH
FMarcel Goc16:025124$1.700UFA, FLA
FSteve Sullivan16:014422$1.500UFA, PIT
FJP Dumont11:107019-UFA
FMarek Svatos11:1493-UFA
FAndreas Thuresson10:0830$0.633UFA, NYR
FMatthew Lombardi14:4920$3.500Trade, TOR
DCody Franson15:108029$0.800Trade, TOR
DShane O'Brien17:06809$1.100UFA, COL
DAlexander Sulzer17:42314$0.700Trade, FLA
DWade Belak3:46150-Retired

Steve Sullivan's production will likely be replaced by Nik Bergfors. Nick Spaling is going to need to step up like he did in the playoffs to fill Joel Ward's shoes. An injury free Cal O'Reilly can fill in for Marcel Goc and a full season from Jon Blum can perhaps replace Cody Franson's production. Both Tyler Sloan and Brett Lebda (who may be bought out next week) are dubious replacements for Shane O'Brien, notwithstanding the latter's own weaknesses. Rookies like Teemu Laakso, Roman Josi or Ryan Ellis will likely be required to have to step up to make up the difference.

Update Aug 6/11:

@RealKyper Nick Kypreos#NHL news. #Predators place former #Leafs Lebda on unconditional waivers today. In all probability for purpose of being bought out.

As predicted, Brett Lebda will not be with NSH this coming season. He was waived today apparently for the purpose of being bought out. His buyout will cost $933K total with the B/O cap hit spread over two years as follow: $516,667 (2011-12), $466,667 (2012-13).

I would expect a defensive defenseman like Scott Hannan to be signed to a one year deal with NSH in the next few days. The other options include Chris Campoli and Bryan McCabe. Like Weber though, Hannan is a Kelowna Rocket alumni, an association that may aid in any recruiting efforts of the latter.

Agent Don Meehan, who as of Aug 3 was still working the phones to get Hannan a deal, was very clear about any possibile return to WSH: “That won’t happen.”

By signing another d-man, Poile would also free up a player that could be used in a trade for a forward. For instance, one of the highly regarded blueline prospects (Blum, Josi, Ellis or Ekholm) could be packaged in deal for a top six forward "when the opportunity arises" to acquire one.

Update Aug 8/11:

@mirtle James MirtleHillen gets a two-way deal worth only $650k at the NHL level. Good signing by Poile here.

John Russell - Getty Images
Predictable veteran signing for NSH's blueline. Poile obviously didn't want to pay Scott Hannan's asking price.

Jack Hillen averaged 18:49 in ice time in 64 games with the NY Islanders last season. That was sixth among NYI blueliners and includes 1:55 minutes per game on the PK and negligible time on the PP.

At 5'10" 190lbs, the smallish but swift Hillen will help ease the TOI of the kids that NSH will surely deploy among the top six this season. This will be the Minnesota native's fourth full pro season since playing at Colorado College (see his stats below).

Hillen's contract is about the amount NSH saves from Brett Lebda's buyout (who himself is a smallish depth blueliner). Hence, the numbers in the team cap table below are still very relevant.

Original article continued:

The resulting roster looks quite thin in all areas except perhaps in goal:

Nashville Predators
Left WingTOIGPPCapCenterTOIGPPCapRight WingTOIGPPCap
Sergei Kostitsyn15:117750$2.5David Legwand18:486441$4.5Martin Erat18:056450$4.5
Niklas Bergfors14:457236$0.6Mike Fisher18:152712$4.2Patric Hornqvist15:437948$3.1
Nick Spaling13:557414$1.1Cal O'Reilly16:543818$1.1Colin Wilson13:178234$1.7
Matt Halischuk10:072712$0.7Jerred Smithson14:508213$0.8Jordin Tootoo11:521018$1.3
Blake Geoffrion8:16208$1.1Zach Stortini7:05324$0.6
Left DefenseTOIGPPCapRight DefenseTOIGPPCapGoalSV%GPWCap
Ryan Suter25:127039$3.5Shea Weber25:198248$7.5Pekka Rinne.9306433$3.4
Kevin Klein20:478118$1.4Jonathon Blum17:45238$0.9Anders Lindback .9152211$0.9
Brett Lebda 13:20414$1.5Tyler  Sloan12:30336$0.7
Teemu Laakso2:4310$0.7
LTIRFrancis Bouillon20:1344101.4mDefenseman
BuyoutJP Dumont11:107019$1.3Forward
Salary Cap$64,300,000
Cap Payroll$49,231,000Bonuses: $1.450m
Cap Space$15,069,000Roster Size: 23 players

There is though plenty of cap space to work with now if the plan really is to acquire more talent. And that may be the strategy David Poile intends to use. Though Poile has a restrictive internal budget to deal with, he's still shy of that threshold by millions of dollars -- at least if last season is any indication.

He said during the Weber press conference that he believes the team is a couple quality forwards away from competing for the cup. Poile went on to say that he feels the club has set themselves up to acquire those forwards by freeing up money from not retaining certain players (specifically the UFAs, the bought out JP Dumont and the LTIR'd Matthew Lombardi). As I outlined above, he feels those players can be replaced through internal promotions. Poile though qualified these statements by adding that this will be done when the "when the opportunity arises." 

Needless to say, no NHL team is going to gift wrap a top six forward for NSH. The opportunity is going to arise by Poile either presenting a cap relief opportunity to one of his fellow GMs, or dealing some of his prospects and picks for immediate help, like he did last season when acquiring Mike Fisher for high picks.

As for the first option, wielding cap space, forwards like Scott Gomez and Ryan Malone come to mind. However, I'm not sure either of those really do the trick, since retaining a guy like Joel Ward would have been just as effective.

I would have suggested a certain New Jersey Devil player, but the club having seemingly solved their cap issues by dealing Bryan Rolston to NYI I don't think Zach Parise is going to be available until the TDL. That is likely too long to wait before Poile needs to make up his mind on his own key pending UFAs, Suter & Rinne.

Plus, the cost of the that transaction would be high, likely one of NSH's own pending UFAs, Suter or Rinne, or several pieces of its future, for a player in Parise who may be determined to go to unrestricted free agency no matter where he gets dealt to -- if he gets dealt by NJD.

Regarding the second option, utilizing youngsters as trade currency, below are the key prospects in the system. Though peddling Alexander Radulov in a trade may sound like a quick fix, the chances of getting anything valuable in return makes this scenario a non-starter. The possibility of  him remaining in the KHL rather than return to the NHL is too real. If Radulov is involved in a trade, it's more likely he is the throw-in just to get a deal closed.

In contrast to Radulov, solid prospects like Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis would certainly get another GM's attention. Again, the best case scenario would be a top player in return, but that would require packaging the prospect with a current roster player in all likelihood. 

Prospects in the System
FAlexander RadulovTop LineProven commdty; KHL factor diminishes trade value
FCraig SmithTop 6College grad had outstanding WHC; close to ready
FTaylor BeckTop 6Pwr Fwd has had an solid jnr career, got a taste of AHL
FZach BudishTop 9Pwr Fwd whose injuries have delayed development
FMichael LattaTop 9Continues to get better in jnr, needs time in AHL
FAustin WatsonBot 6Pwr Fwd that needs lots of jnr development
FChris MuellerDepthSmallish finesse forward that fills in for the injured
DRoman JosiTop 4Seasoned in AHL, could be ready for NHL
DRyan EllisTop 5Big shot, small frame; needs year in AHL
DMattias EkholmTop 6Towering d-man who is solid if not spectacular
DCO RousselDepthRecent CHL grad seemed to take step back last ssn
DTaylor AronsonDepthAverage size d-man will be In CHL for couple yrs
GJeremy SmithBckUpLots of work yet to do; split time in AHL and ECHL
GChet PickardDepthCould be bust, yet to show consistency in ECHL

The third option is to use existing roster players, but that usually tends to create a scenario where one hole is filled while another is created. The exception is if some redundancy can be created at a particular position. For instance, if Anders Lindback were to step up again during a prolonged absence by Pekka Rinne for some unforeseen reasons, then Poile may have the confidence to deal the latter for some more help up front. That may also help relieve some of the pressure with regard to re-signing each of The Big Three all at once. 

And since we are on the subject, a case for trading Rinne has already been made by some as a possible solution to several financial issues that the club will face next season. The wild card though is Lindback readyness -- can he do the job as the permanent #1 goalie? Tough question, but perhaps worth the risk of trying anyway. 

Regardless of the perspective (and bias), David Poile has a very difficult task in front of him. Shea Weber (and his professional advisers) realize this and he's justifiably hedging his bets. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear the same at some point about Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne.

I'm sure Suter has conferred with his good pal, Parise, especially since both are UFAs at the end of this season. And I'm sure Pekka Rinne has his own buddy network that he's working -- he played with both Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen on Karpat in Finaland (not to suggest though that Cam Ward is going anywhere). It's only natural that each player gravitates to their network of friends and advisers when formulating his own Plan B.

The odds are stacked squarely against NSH being able to keep each member of The Big Three. Thus, the smart money is on Plan B all around, including the club exercising its own back up plan. The likely scenario is that NSH deals one of The Big Three in order to save the other two. Poile can't wait too long though to make that call since the odds of losing all three increase with each passing day of inaction.

Look for a trade of the least content member of The Big Three well before the February trade deadline.

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