Thursday, July 19, 2012
Preds' choice with Weber is clear cut
By Scott Burnside
So who suffered from the biggest case of financial nausea Thursday morning?
Was it the Nashville Predators' ownership group upon learning of the Philadelphia Flyers' 14-year, $110 million offer sheet that was signed by franchise defenseman Shea Weber? Should they choose to match the offer sheet, it would cost the Predators $68 million in signing bonuses through the first six years of the deal, $27 million alone in the next calendar year.
Or was it NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whose owners are in the process of a grand charade that involves crying poor and demanding enormous concessions from the players at the bargaining table while one of their top owners -- Philadelphia's Ed Snider -- tries to crush a small-market team like Nashville with such a massively front-loaded offer sheet?
Ah, the irony is just a little too delicious. Now pass that air sickness bag.
If there is one person whose life the offer sheet has actually simplified, it's David Poile. The veteran Nashville GM was bitterly disappointed that he wasn't able to keep free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter in the fold earlier this month, as the smooth-skating defenseman signed a 13-year, $98 million deal with Minnesota on July 4 despite a lucrative offer from Nashville.
An emotional Poile vowed on that day to turn his full attention to locking Weber up long-term. Although Weber's deal was not of his making and certainly would test the financial resources of an ownership group in Nashville that has scrabbled and clawed to make the team a legitimate Cup contender, the result is ultimately what Poile has been pursuing for more than a year now: Weber under contract long-term.
As a general manager who once allowed Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens to leave Washington via an offer sheet from the St. Louis Blues, Poile's situation has long been clear and was reiterated Thursday.
"We have stated previously that, should a team enter into an offer sheet with Shea, our intention would be to match and retain Shea," Poile said in a release.
"Our ownership has provided us with the necessary resources to build a Stanley Cup-winning team. Due to the complexity of the offer sheet, we will take the appropriate time to review and evaluate it and all of its ramifications in order to make the best decision for the Predators in both the short and long-term."
The equation, then, is relatively simple for the Predators: match the deal and remain relevant, or take the four first-round draft picks that would come as compensation for not matching the offer sheet and give up any hope of being a contender, of attracting top talent, of being anything other than a team treading water and wondering when the lights will go out for good.
As defining moments go, this one is clear-cut.
Multiple sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that they believe the ownership group has no choice but to breathe deep and match the offer sheet.
As for the idea that somehow Weber was indicating a desire to depart Nashville, Weber would have known that by signing the offer sheet he was likely to end up a Predator long-term.
Was it his preference to go to Philadelphia? Perhaps. But that is a moot point assuming the Predators match.
Weber knew Poile's position going into the process, so he knew that by signing the Flyers' offer, he was narrowing his career options to two, either of which was going to make him wildly wealthy and secure for what will amount to pretty much the rest of his career.
If Weber truly wanted out, he could have explained to Poile that he had no intention of signing a long-term deal in Nashville. He could have asked the Predators to trade him to a team prepared to offer him a long-term deal this summer before a new collective bargaining agreement comes into place that might eliminate these kinds of long-term, front-loaded deals.
That would have provided a risk for Weber, of course, hoping that such a deal could have been consummated.
Does this change the relationship between the Preds' captain and management and his teammates should the Predators match the deal?
When Sergei Fedorov signed an offer sheet prepared by the Carolina Hurricanes during a contract dispute with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1997-98 season, the Red Wings matched the offer sheet even though it meant paying Fedorov $28 million for about half a season's worth of games. The end result? The Wings won their second straight Stanley Cup that spring with Fedorov scoring 10 times and adding 10 assists during the postseason.
If Weber continues to play at his exceptional level and the Predators, even without Suter, continue to be a playoff team -- they have qualified for the postseason in all but one of Weber's seven NHL seasons with the Predators -- then the offer sheet may prove to be of little consequence to anyone but the team's owners, who will have to find ways to come up with the money.
As for the Flyers, Paul Holmgren is one of the few GMs in the NHL who has the financial wherewithal, not mention the stones, to make such an offer. But he, likewise, would have known that there was every chance that the Predators would match the offer sheet.
The two teams have been frequent trading partners, and there are reports the two teams discussed a possible deal for Weber. But Poile would have been asking for the moon from the Flyers with a focus on the Flyers' impressive crop of NHL-ready youngsters such as Luke Schenn, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Matt Read, so Holmgren went with the offer-sheet option.
Regardless of how it turns out, Holmgren's offer sheet ensures that Weber either become a Flyer or be off the market and unavailable to a rival like the New York Rangers by remaining in Nashville.
Under the terms of the CBA, the Predators cannot trade Weber for a calendar year after matching the offer sheet, and a year from now, when Weber would have become an unrestricted free agent, a no-move, no-trade clause kicks in.
If Weber remains in Nashville, the Flyers will look to add an impact player on the blue line and up front, and Holmgren may be forced to look more closely at making a deal to add either Columbus captain Rick Nash or Anaheim winger Bobby Ryan, although those moves are less attractive than merely spending money because it would cost the Flyers young assets.
The offer sheet also indicates the Flyers have absolutely no expectation that captain Chris Pronger will return to the game. Pronger missed the last half of last season and the playoffs with concussion issues.
Pronger has five years remaining on a contract that will cost the Flyers slightly more than $4.9 million annually against the salary cap.
Bigger picture, the Weber offer sheet highlights what appears to be a significant disconnect between the NHL's GMs and the message being sent by the league in early CBA talks with the players, talks that continued this week in New York.
Late last week, the NHL produced a first proposal that, in part, asked for the players to reduce their portion of hockey-related revenues from the current 57 percent to 46 percent. As well, the league asked for five-year limits on contracts and the abolition of signing bonuses, the likes of which were the cornerstones of the Weber deal and the matching 13-year, $98 million deals signed by Suter and Zach Parise with the Minnesota Wild on July 4.
How does the league rationalize making significant demands from players, while owners and GMs continue to make the very offers the league insists are hampering the game?
The one area the Weber offer sheet does highlight is revenue sharing. It is generally accepted that the league does the worst job of all sports in spreading the wealth among its weaker sisters.
The Weber offer sheet is an example of a tool wielded by a powerful, wealthy team like the Flyers designed to crush a smaller-market team financially and steal its top assets by the sheer dint of economic force.
The salary cap was designed to create a level playing field in which presumably that kind of leverage would be greatly minimized. Even though the Predators, regular beneficiaries of the current revenue-sharing program, may end up matching the offer sheet, it's the kind of tool that profoundly upsets the notion of a level playing field, something the players will no doubt point out as talks continue.