David Poile and the Nashville Predators are facing the dual realities of today's NHL.
On one side, the small-market, small-revenue franchises like the Predators can spend their money as carefully as they can and draft as smart as they can to build from within. But sooner or later one of the big boys is simply going to reach over and grab your lunch.
It happened for the second time in two weeks Thursday when the Philadelphia Flyers signed superstar defenceman and restricted free agent Shea Weber to a 14-year offer sheet worth $110-million (all currency U.S.).
The deal also calls for $68-million in signing bonuses in the first six years, which will make it difficult for a perpetually scuffling franchise like the Predators to match the offer and keep Weber.
What is just as difficult to swallow for the Predators is the other side of the dual reality: One of those players they drafted and developed proved to be just as ruthless as their richer competitors. Once Weber's defence partner, Ryan Suter, left the Predators on July 4 as a free agent for a 13-year, $98-million contract with the Minnesota Wild, Weber decided he was headed out the door as well.
"The whole NHL market was reset," one of Weber's agents, Jarrett Bousquet, told Toronto radio station The Fan 590 on Thursday.
Bousquet was talking about the salary structure for star defencemen, which meant Weber, as one of the top two or three in the NHL, was due more than $100-million in a contract that long. But Bousquet made it clear that what also changed on July 4 was any intention Weber had of staying with the Predators because he was no longer confident they could challenge for the Stanley Cup.
So the 26-year-old conducted a mini-tour of his four preferred teams once he became a restricted free agent July 1. He visited the Flyers, New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings. The native of Sicamous, B.C., also chatted with the Vancouver Canucks. Then he picked the Flyers.
Poile, the Nashville general manager, and the Predators' owners now have seven days to decide if they want to match the offer. If they do not, the Predators will get four first-round draft choices from the Flyers as compensation. However, that is small beer when you consider that with Weber in the lineup as a way-more-than-adequate replacement for the concussed and aging Chris Pronger, the Flyers will finish high enough to leave Poile with four picks at the end of the first round.
In a statement released by the Predators, Poile said he will study Weber's offer sheet before making a decision within the next seven days.
It seems it was only a few weeks ago that Poile stood up proudly at a press conference and announced that goaltender Pekka Rinne had just signed a seven-year, $49-million contract. Poile followed that by saying he planned to keep Weber and Suter in the fold by signing them to similar contracts. And now this.
One way to look at this is Weber is making it easy for the Predators to keep him. By signing the Flyers' offer sheet, he created a contract for what he and his representatives believe he is worth for the rest of his NHL career, and all the Predators have to do to keep him is match it.
There is a strong sentiment around the NHL that the Predators should match the offer. Yes, it is expensive, but they will still have Rinne and Weber to build the rest of the team around. Not many other teams have two cornerstones that good.
But with Weber making it clear he wants to play elsewhere, it is time for Poile to be as ruthless as the Flyers and Weber. He has to match the offer and then, with a clearly unhappy Weber on his team, wait the year called for under the collective agreement (let's assume this will survive the current negotiations) before you can trade a player from matching an offer sheet and then hold an auction.
Sure Poile would have an unhappy player for a year. But a trade will attract a price far in excess of the four first-round picks due from the Flyers.