Ryan Suter’s future with the Nashville Predators was hotly debated this week, largely for two reasons. One, his Predators’ team unexpectedly exited in the second round of the playoffs, far short of their goal of challenging for the 2012 Stanley Cup. Two, Suter and fellow American Zach Parise represent the cream of the unrestricted free agent crop; and if one or two fail to make it to July 1, when they can test the market, then it will be extremely slim pickings when the annual bidding free-for-all begins in less than two months time.
Suter was deliberately non-committal about his plans during exit interviews this week; and that’s reasonable. What happens in the next seven weeks will ultimately determine, not only his future, but his family’s future, likely for the rest of his playing career. Even if he was leaning one way or another, to make any sort of public pronouncement, while the disappointment of a failed playoff is still so fresh in his mind, makes little sense. Back when Suter was talking about his plans for the future, he cited playing for a contender as a priority, which stands to reason because he’s going to get a pile of cash no matter who he plays for next.
Most seem to think he’s moving on, because other destinations (such as the Detroit Red Wings) represent a greater hope for success. But do they really? There have been eight different Stanley Cup champions in the past eight years, and with the Boston Bruins exiting in the first round, there will be a ninth new champion this year unless the 2003 victors, the New Jersey Devils, can win it all again.
In a year when 20 out of 30 NHL teams collected 88 points or more, how do you realistically pick a team on the basis of which has the best chance to win a Stanley Cup? The fact is, since the lockout, it appears as if winning once makes it less likely, not more likely, than you’ll win again, because of all the duress a team plays under during four gruelling, grinding playoff rounds - and its spillover effect onto their play the next season.
Even the Red Wings’ estimable general manager Ken Holland made the point about parity, when issuing his post-season assessment of a Detroit team that fell to Nashville in the opening round: “You wake up every day, and you're nervous. It's such a fine, fine line between finishing fifth and finishing ninth.”
Organizationally, the Red Wings have been the NHL’s gold standard for two decades now, and have made 21 consecutive trips to the playoffs. But at the moment, they are just one more good team in a league that really boasts no great teams.
Conclusion: If Suter is picking his destination on the basis of who is getting closer to cracking the championship code, well, probably that would be Nashville, which wins 40 games every team, perennially makes the playoffs, is solid defensively (if he stays), and is hungrier than ever. Moreover, if the Preds do get a chastened Alexander Radulov back for a full season, maybe they finally get that necessary game-breaker in the lineup, someone who (they hope) is more fully vested in team goals than he was this spring, when he broke that curfew and created an unnecessary distraction in a five-game, second-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Incidentally, if hockey were judged on artistic merit and territorial play, that Predators-Coyotes series might still be in progress. Nashville was the better team overall in Games 1 and 5, but lost. Well, that happens. That’s the way of the hockey world. Analyst Gary Galley said it on CBC early in the playoffs: “Whoever said hockey was fair.” Nobody. And he could have added: The best team doesn’t always win.
So back to Suter, who has been variously linked to the Red Wings and the Minnesota Wild in speculation (the latter because it is closer to his Madison, Wis., home. The Predators will offer him a market-value contract and likely the necessary term to get him signed as well. They were not afraid to give term to goaltender Pekke Rinne when they signed him to a seven-year, $49-million contract; and they didn’t blink when Shea Weber received a $7.5-million arbitration award last summer, making him the highest-paid defenceman in the game.
Suter is represented by Neil Sheehy, who played professionally with his uncle Gary in Calgary; and generally does a good job of gauging his clients wishes. Not every agent gets that.
Some will sell their clients to the highest bidder and then convince the client that it is the right step in their careers. You wonder if Ilya Bryzgalov might have second thoughts after pursuing top dollar in Philadelphia rather than trying to make it work in Phoenix. Ville Leino didn’t find the grass any greener in Buffalo, nor did Christian Ehrhoff.