Thursday, January 15, 2009
Preds' Weber set to crash Norris party
By Pierre LeBrun ESPN.com
Shea Weber has 13 goals and 18 assists in 43 games this season for the Preds.
The Norris Trophy has been a private club of three since 2000.
Chris Pronger (2000); Scott Niedermayer (2004); and the king, Nicklas Lidstrom (2001-03, 2006-08), are the only names on the trophy over the last nine years.
The nominees haven't been that varied, either. Niedermayer and Pronger usually challenge Lidstrom, although Zdeno Chara has sneaked in a few times, as has Sergei Zubov, among others. Last season, newbie nominee Dion Phaneuf was the runner-up.
Well, get ready for another new name in the exclusive Norris race. And not just for this season.
"He's still learning, but Shea Weber is a guy that you're going to talk about for the Norris Trophy every year from now on," Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said this week.
He may be a little biased, but he's got plenty of support. A sampling of some of the top hockey media minds also believe Weber deserves consideration this season.
A Friend In Schenn
Shea Weber was in demand by the media as the Nashville Predators strolled through hockey meccas Toronto and Montreal this week. But the Preds' star defenseman made sure to make time for dinner Monday night in Toronto with his protégé, Luke Schenn.
"He's a good kid," Weber said of the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie blueliner. "I like to stay in touch with him and follow his progress. I'm really excited for him."
When Schenn was 15, he was summoned by the WHL's Kelowna Rockets to spend a few days with the junior team and get a taste for what it's like. The Rockets knew Schenn would be their next big blueline star and wanted him to get a feel for it.
"They told me they would put me up with a player," Schenn recalled of his living arrangement that week in 2005. "I said, 'Who?' The GM said, 'Shea Weber.' I couldn't be more excited. He had just won the world juniors. He was a big name. I was pretty scared to meet him.
"Now, every summer, I go stay with him in Kelowna for the Rockets alumni golf tournament. He's been awesome to me pretty much since Day One.
"We text each other once a week or so," Schenn said. "We keep in touch quite a bit. I try to watch him as much as I can on TV." --Pierre LeBrun
Chara might be the favorite at this point, Dan Boyle will get a serious look, and the ageless Lidstrom won't go down without a fight, but Weber is in that mix.
"He's become an elite defenseman in the league," said Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis, the 1999 Norris Trophy winner.
MacInnis, an executive with the St. Louis Blues, gets a front-row seat to Weber six nights a season, since the young star plays in the Central Division.
"He's good on both sides of the puck," MacInnis said. "He's got a bomb of a shot that he uses very effectively. He gets pucks through to the net. Defensively, he plays with an edge. He's a big, strong, mobile defenseman. He makes it hard for the forwards to play against him.
"He's certainly up there in the category of a Norris Trophy candidate."
Weber's 13 goals led all NHL defensemen through Wednesday night. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder also dishes it out in his own zone. He's the complete package.
"To this point, I can't think of a defenseman that's had a bigger effect on his team because he doesn't have the supporting cast of some of the other players," Trotz said. "I don't know if he'll win the Norris Trophy this year, but I do know you'll be talking about him for the next 15 years."
To many around the game, the 23-year-old Weber is the right-handed Phaneuf. The two have long been compared to each other, having played together as defensive partners for Canada in a World Junior Championship. The difference is that Phaneuf came into the league with a much higher profile, having gone ninth overall to Calgary in the same 2003 draft that produced Weber, and delivered big offensive numbers right away in a Canadian hockey market.
"That's the thing -- if Shea was playing in a market like here in Toronto, or anywhere in Canada, or even a big U.S. market where there's a little more exposure, people would know a lot more about him," said rookie Maple Leafs blueliner Luke Schenn, a good friend of Weber's. "He is definitely one of the top defensemen in the league.
"He's got a heavy shot, scores lots of goals, plays both ends of the ice really well, and he's a big, strong, physical guy," Schenn added. "Even though he is putting up points, he remains very underrated."
There may not be a smaller market in the NHL than Nashville. So when Weber is doing all these great things, not enough people are noticing.
"Being in a non-traditional market, Web doesn't get the attention like some other players," Trotz said. "But to me, he's a young Rob Blake, a guy that can play any game that you want, a real good pro on and off the ice. He's diligent in being an NHL top-end defenseman. His work ethic is exceptional, and he's got good leadership skills."
Spend 15 minutes with Weber, however, and you'll notice that notoriety is the last thing he's craving.
"My family knows how I'm doing, and my friends," Weber, shrugging his shoulders, told ESPN.com. "It's the people that are close to me that matter. It's nice to get recognition, but I want to make sure that I'm just helping the Nashville Predators win games."
He's humility at its purest, a small-town Canadian kid who doesn't yearn for the spotlight.
"Web's a low-key guy," said fellow Preds defenseman Kevin Klein. "He's really down-to-earth. I think he likes it that way. He doesn't need the spotlight. He doesn't need to be in a big hockey market."
Former NHL coach Terry Crisp, the color analyst for the Predators, said Weber has "quietly, quietly climbed on the scene."
"With no fanfare," Crisp said. "Everyone knew that he had some talent and would come along, but I don't think anyone realized he would come on this quickly and have this kind of impact on our hockey club. Suddenly you realize this kid is the quarterback on your power play, he's the go-to guy, the gunner, the cannon on your power play, and he's the leading man in ice time along with [Ryan] Suter. And he's so unassuming. Very quiet. 'Let's just get the job done.'"
As the 2008-09 season rolls along, however, the secret of Shea Weber will soon be no longer. Every NHL city the Predators visit, Weber is the No. 1 media target. He is escaping Phaneuf's shadow.
"I would say Shea has gotten a lot of recognition this year," Predators GM David Poile said. "I think he's certainly a Norris Trophy candidate. Maybe Phaneuf got some recognition over the past few years, but Shea is catching up both in recognition and in his play. Who's to say who will be the better player in the long run?"
At this point, both Phaneuf and Weber are considered good bets for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. Weber's eyes light up when Vancouver 2010, held in his native British Columbia, is mentioned.
"That's definitely something that would be special," said Weber, a member of Canada's 2007 World Championship team. "Every kid dreams of playing for their country and wearing that Maple Leaf. But that's still a long ways away. If I start to wander off and start thinking about that, then things won't get taken care of here."
Poile, the associate GM for the U.S. Olympic team, agrees Weber is a serious candidate for Team Canada.
"And that's a year away," Poile said. "If he keeps playing the way he is, he's going to be a tough guy to keep off that team."
With all this talk of Norris Trophy and Olympic Games, it is hard to believe 48 players were taken before Weber in the 2003 NHL draft. And that includes three other Nashville Predators.
"That falls into the category of, it's good to be good and it's better to be lucky," Poile said with a laugh.
Suter, Weber's defense partner, was Nashville's first pick that year, seventh overall, and he's turning into a dandy himself. He may suit for Team USA in Vancouver. Konstantin Glazachev was Nashville's second pick, 35th overall. He stayed in Russia. Klein was next for the Preds, 37th overall. He's a good young defenseman also on the team right now.
But let's be honest -- Weber 49th overall?
"Honestly, I thought I might go lower than that," Weber said. "I was kind of surprised to go at that position. I was excited. I'm thankful Nashville drafted me."
That is the truth. Most NHL teams had Weber rated even lower. As a 17-year-old in the 2002-03 season with the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets, Weber was still feeling his way.
"We identified him higher than anyone else did," Poile said. "He's a player that, in junior at the time, didn't get as much ice time as some others because of his age. We actually had another player on that Rockets team, a second-round pick named Tomas Slovak, so we were there actually quite a bit to watch him play. Our scouts were able to see Weber, as well."
The next season after his draft year, Weber blossomed into a major junior star with the Rockets. He followed the same pattern into the NHL. After beginning his pro career with AHL Milwaukee and being called up for 28 NHL games with Nashville in 2005-06, he exploded for 17 goals in his first full NHL season in 2006-07.
"You look at Web, even in junior, he likes to get comfortable in his first year and then all of sudden there's a big jump in his play and then he ends up taking over the team," Trotz said. "We're in that mode right now."
Last season, just as people around the league began to take more notice of Weber, he was felled by injuries and was limited to 20 points (6-14) in 54 games.
"It was definitely a trying time," Weber said of last season. "It was a tough thing to go through, not only physically, but mentally. It's draining. You don't really feel like you're part of the team. You're there, but you're still on the outside. So it was a tough time. But it only makes you stronger, and I'm better because of it."
The injury-plagued season didn't scare off the Preds. They signed the restricted free agent to a three-year, $13.5 million contract last summer. They didn't fool around.
"We were confident in him," Poile said. "He worked really hard in the summer to make sure he was healthy and in great shape. He came to camp and he was No. 1 right from Day One. And, knock on wood, he's been healthy to this point."
Given the ownership issues in Nashville over the last few years and the size of the market, you wouldn't blame Weber if he pondered what it would be like elsewhere. But that's the last thing on his mind at this point.
"I like it in Nashville a lot," Weber said. "It's a good city, and I think the organization is going in the right direction. They've showed great faith in me in drafting me, bringing me along in Milwaukee and giving me a chance. I'm thankful for that. I just want to help any way that I can."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.