For the Nashville Predators to keep Steve Sullivan, someone's got to go

Yesterday I delved into the question of whether, within the confines of a budget and the reliance upon NHL revenue sharing, the Nashville Predators can realistically hope to contend for a Stanley Cup in the near future.

My answer, in case you missed it, is a resounding yes. There is perhaps a $10-12 million spending gap between where the Predators typically work and the highest-end of the NHL salary scale, but that's a difference that can be overcome by focusing on obtaining the most value for each dollar spent. The keys there are to draft & develop good talent, and not get caught in free agent bidding wars that result in a lengthy, high-dollar contract that hampers a team for a number of seasons.

As we head into the NHL Draft tomorrow and the opening of free agent season on July 1, what then, do the Preds need to do to assemble a competitive team? Do they have the funds available to re-sign players like Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, and Greg Zanon? Let's take a look...

While reading this, give a listen to Willy Daunic's podcast (MP3) about this whole situation, which was posted yesterday afternoon. Willy's one of the few commenters who recognizes the fact that Sully isn't eligible yet for incentive-based contracts, which is something too many pundits haven't understood. That's why it's hard for Poile to take a "just sign him" stance.

Based on the fact that the salary cap is staying put, the Preds payroll for the upcoming season is likely to be basically the same as it was last year at $44-45 million, so let's break down the roster by position, using data from NHLNumbers.com:

Goaltending

With the tandem of Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis, Nashville should enjoy, at the very least, average NHL performance for the bargain-basement price of $2.75 million. 20 other teams pay just their starter more than that, so the Preds enjoy a "pay for performance" benefit here that's worth millions. Anaheim is set to pay J.S. Giguere $6 million, for example, and they didn't even go with him in the playoffs. Chicago will pay Christobal Huet $5.625 million, and while he had some good moments in the in the Western Conference Finals, he was unable to earn the #1 job for the Blackhawks last season.

Looking forward, Rinne should earn a healthy contract beginning with the 2010-11 season, but it's likely that Ellis will move on at that point in favor of younger prospects rising through the system like Drew MacIntyre or Chet Pickard.

Defense

With 5 players under contract for a combined $11.9 million, again we have another area of the team that will fall below the NHL average in terms of payroll, but is likely to perform at a relatively high level. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were the 2nd-highest scoring defense pair after Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and Dan Hamhuis is a commendable 2nd-pair defender who can work both sides of the special teams as well. Assuming that the team doesn't re-sign any of the free agents on defense, there are holes to fill in terms of a 2nd-pair partner for Hamhuis (is the plan for Kevin Klein to assume that role?) and a 3rd-pair/PK specialist.

If you peg Cody Franson for one of those jobs, and a veteran stay-at-home type for the other (at perhaps $1.5-2.0 million), you're look at a total bill for the defense of roughly $14-15 million. That's a few million under the league average compared to last season, and leaves us with $26-27 million to spend on the rest of the squad.

Forwards

Golly it would be swell to see Alex Radulov fly back from Russia and pop in 35 goals to wrap up his rookie contract at $900K, but that ain't gonna happen. As it stands now, Nashville has nine forwards under contract at a combined salary of $22.3 million. That means you're looking at six or seven players that need to be signed for about $4 million total, assuming no other roster moves are made.

You can probably pencil in Ryan Jones for about $1 million, and perhaps Cal O'Reilly for a little less than that. If Vern Fiddler comes back, you can bet he'd be around the $1 million mark as well. Colin Wilson, to the extent that he plays at the NHL level, will make $875K with the potential for incentives above and beyond that figure.

See where I'm going here? There are still more spots to fill than money remaining, which begs the question of moving one of the current salaries.

Warning: Entering Speculative Waters...

Martin Erat probably makes the most attractive option there, given the fact that his salary for the next four years is over $5 million (as opposed to $3.5 million last season), but his salary cap hit is only $4.5 million.  For a big-budget team, that's an attractive situation. According to NHLSCAP.com, his no-movement clause doesn't go into effect until July 1 of this year, so if he's going to get traded, the time is now. If they could move Erat without taking on a major salary in return, the Preds would free up the money to potentially re-sign both Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward to short-term contracts.

Before you throw a rotten tomato and the screen and wonder why a goal-starved team like Nashville would trade away one of their few offensively talented forwards, I'd caution that the financial focus on this team needs to be on the centers and defensemen, not the wingers. Given the fact that their salaries are comparable, I'd rather see the Preds hold on to David Legwand over Erat, and while some have thrown Ryan Suter or Dan Hamhuis around as possible trade bait, that would leave the Preds with just two proven defensemen they can play in all situations between Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis.

On the wing, however, the departure of Erat could be compensated for by retaining Sully & Ward, and further development from either Ryan Jones or Patric HornqvistToss in the speculation around a possible Jordin Tootoo/Robert Nilsson trade with Edmonton, and that could provide another avenue to bolster the depth of scoring throughout Nashville's forward ranks. I've said often in the past that what I believe the Preds need to improve their offensive capability is to field a 3rd line with some pop to it, rather than the collection of one-dimensional checkers they've employed in recent years. I don't believe that adding a high-profile sniper (at the expense of making cuts elsewhere) would have such an impact.

What might David Poile obtain in exchange for Erat? HIgh draft picks and good players under their initial contracts would seem to provide the most effective help for what the Preds need.

Take a look at the table below, while lines up what contracts are currently nailed down for the 2009-10 season, and two hypothetical scenarios. Under the Hypo 1 scenario, the following occurs:

  • Vern Fiddler is the only unrestricted free agent retained by the team (that'll excite the fan base!)
  • A veteran defenseman making $1.5 million is signed for 3rd-pair/PK work
  • Jones, Pihlstrom, O'Reilly, Franson and MacIntyre are signed to the salaries noted in the table. 

Under Hypo 2, we have these:

  • Jones, Pihlstrom, O'Reilly, Franson and MacIntyre are signed to the salaries noted in the table. 
  • A veteran defenseman making $1.5 million is signed for 3rd-pair/PK work
  • Erat is traded for future NHL assets (picks/prospects, no salary coming back)
  • Jordin Tootoo is traded for Robert Nilsson
  • Vern Fiddler, Steve Sullivan and Joel Ward are re-signed to the salaries noted

Ask yourself, which scenario would you prefer? The bottom line here is that unless some significant current salaries are moved off the team, I just don't see Steve Sullivan remaining a Nashville Predator.

 Forwards Pos Age 2009-10 Hypo 1 Hypo 2 Notes
 Erat, Martin L 27 5.25 5.25  Traded for pick/young player
 Legwand, David C 28 5.00 5.00 5.00
 Arnott, Jason C 34 4.50 4.50 4.50
 Dumont, Jean-Pierre R 31 4.00 4.00 4.00
 Tootoo, Jordin R 26 0.98 0.98  Traded for Nilsson
 Smithson, Jerred C 30 0.73 0.73 0.73
 Belak, Wade R 32 0.65 0.65 0.65
 Hornqvist, Patric R 22 0.62 0.62 0.62
 Santorelli, Mike C 23 0.62 0.62 0.62
 Fiddler, Vernon C 29 UFA 1.00 1.00
 Jones, Ryan R 25 RFA 0.90 0.90
 Pihlstrom, Antti L 24 RFA 0.70 0.70
 Sullivan, Steve R 34 UFA 3.50
 Ward, Joel R 28 UFA 1.50
 O'Reilly, Cal C 22 RFA 0.65 0.65
 Wilson, Colin R 30 UFA 0.88 0.88
 Robert Nilsson L 33 2.00  Acquired for Tootoo
 Defencemen
 Weber, Shea D 23 4.50 4.50 4.50
 Suter, Ryan D 24 3.50 3.50 3.50
 Hamhuis, Dan D 26 2.50 2.50 2.50
 Klein, Kevin D 24 0.80 0.80 0.80
 Sulzer, Alexander D 25 0.60 0.60 0.60
 Veteran D D 30+ 1.50 1.50
 Franson, Cody D 21 0.60 0.60
 Goaltenders
 Ellis, Dan G 29 2.00 2.00 2.00
 Rinne, Pekka G 26 0.73 0.73 0.73
 MacIntyre, Drew G 26 UFA VI 0.60 0.60
 Total 36.97 43.80 44.57
 Target 44.50
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