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Shea Weber won big in arbitration on Wednesday afternoon, taking home a record $7.5-million (all currency U.S.) contract for next season.

Now the Nashville Predators have to prove to their captain that they can win despite their limited budget or risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent two years from now.

"The award is certainly reflective of his value to the Predators and his worth in the NHL," general manager David Poile said. "So congratulations to Shea."

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At issue all along, according to Poile, was trying to lock Weber into a long-term contract, something that proved difficult given Nashville may lose two key players - Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter - as free agents next summer.

Weber, 25, didn't want to tie himself into a deal and then watch the team's other stars leave for greener pastures a year later.

Poile didn't mince words when it came to how far apart they were on negotiations.

"We just couldn't quite agree on the term, the length or the structure so we just didn't get it done," he said. "We would have certainly liked to have the certainty of having our captain on a long-term contract, but that's not to say he's not going to [sign one] Arbitration wasn't the preferred route to go, but what is done is done."

Not being able to settle ended up costing the Predators, as Weber was awarded the richest arbitration contract in league history, surpassing the $7-million deals John LeClair and Scott Niedermayer received in 2000 and 2004.

He now has the highest salary-cap hit of any defenceman in the league and will almost certainly be making at least the same or more the following season given the Preds will have to give him a qualifying offer at that salary.

For his part, Weber said all of the right things after the award came down, making clear he didn't feel his relationship with the Preds had been affected by the arbitration process and that he liked playing in the city.

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What was apparent but left unsaid is that he is looking, more than anything, to win and will want to see a commitment from ownership to make that happen over the next two years.

"I'm confident with what they've said and time will tell," said Weber, a Norris Trophy runner-up and Olympic gold medalist who's spent six seasons with the Preds.

"He is all about competing for the Stanley Cup," Poile said. "He's been a winner at all levels and his goal, as is the Predators' goal, is to win a Stanley Cup. The thing about Shea, in some of our conversations, it's not just about term or salary - it's about where the team is going and making sure we're on the same path."

Making that goal happen as one of the league's lowest spending teams - and with Weber now making up 15 per cent of their total spending - is going to be considerably difficult.

This past season was the closest Nashville has been to the promised land, advancing past the first round for the first time in their 12-year history, but all of the six teams that have won the Cup since the introduction of the salary cap have spent almost right to the ceiling.

The Predators, meanwhile, have a budget of little more than $50-million in a league with a $48.3-million floor and will have to pay Rinne and Suter another $3-million to $4-million combined to keep them in the fold beginning in 2012.

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If they couldn't win with their three stars underpaid, just imagine how hard it will be to pull off when they all finally get what they deserve.

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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