Captain Suter

Shea Weber was supposed to put the Predators on the map. But when negotiations for a long-term deal broke down last week, it seemed apparent Shea Weber wants to put Shea Weber on the map. Now the Predators should change course, explore trading Weber, with the intention to name Ryan Suter captain. 

Once, the idea of the Predators losing Shea Weber, my favorite player, was abhorrent. Over the past few years, though, I acquiesced to the idea that he might seek a payday elsewhere. I've even long been of the unspoken opinion that the likely trade return for Weber would probably outweigh his future on-ice value. 

When it became apparent that Weber and the Predators were in fact headed to last week's arbitration hearing, however, I realized how emotionally invested I still was in a deal getting done. And only when I caught myself reading reactions from outside Nashville did I realize why. 

With the repeated assurances of our General Manager and Captain that a deal would get done, we fans staked a good bit of our collective credibility as a hockey market on Shea Weber signing. We haughtily dismissed every bogus lowball HFBoards trade proposal. When Weber became the 5th captain in 13 years, it was we, the fans, who lectured the rest of the league on how the revolving door of captains was closed. We drew a distinction between Atlanta's transparent attempt to keep Ilya Kovalchuk with their captaincy and Weber's situation--a distinction that may have never really been there.

There is an obvious symbolic parallel between the Weber situation and Kimmo Timonen's in 2007. He was the first Preds captain to have debuted with the team. And the trade of Timonen in the firesale, after just once season wearing the "C," largely created the perception that Nashville couldn't retain or attract talent. Signing Weber--a bigger, badder, Canadian version of Timonen--would have been the perfect catharsis. 

Now a vocal minority of NHL fans have carte blanche to roll out the same trite matras: Nashville can't afford to keep their good players, they only spend to the cap floor (no?), they don't have any money to make moves, etc.

And if Weber really does leave Nashville, how will the chirping ever stop?

***

Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are nicknamed Batman and Robin, because they're Nashville's dynamic duo: two players of contrasting styles and a kind of natural synergy. But the nickname suggests a sort superhero-sidekick dynamic that's become overstated. If Ryan Suter really is the Robin of the two, he's college-years Dick Grayson, a laid-back smart aleck, but a burgeoning superhero in his own right, ready to go solo.

And while Weber may be better with Suter than Suter is with Weber, I bet Suter without Weber would fare better than Weber without Suter. With his astronomical "hockey IQ" and puck-moving ability, Suter raises the play of his teammates.

It seems, in negotiations, Weber held out for being the highest paid defenseman in hockey, better teammates, or both. The latter really rubs me the wrong way--players are players; they're not experts on how to construct a roster. What was your initial reaction when Poile traded for Sergei Kostitsyn, Shea, a player you ended up really liking? Can we get your analysis of the Hellberg pick?

You may think the Predators' deficiencies are obvious and huge (and maybe they are), but if Weber really wanted to help make the roster better, he would take a hometown discount to facilitate Poile signing better forwards. Don't misunderstand--I don't fault Weber for seeking his big payday and his best shot at the Cup. But "I'm holding out for better teammates" isn't exactly the statement of confidence you seek from your franchise player.

And he's not going to find a better teammate immediately to his left than Ryan Suter. I also have a hunch Sutes wouldn't mind getting out of Weber's shadow, if Webs is going to oblige. 

Weber always said "the right things," but the "right things" aren't always the true things, and we as a fanbase maybe read too much hope into intentionally vague statements.

Of course this plan is all contingent on Suter signing a long-term deal. By contrast to Weber, though, Suter rarely cares about the PR implications of his words. And if David Poile and Barry Trotz ask him if directly he wants to lead this team, there'll be no ambiguity. 

Shea Weber is not in the wrong. He's just not who I thought he was, and not the guy the Predators need as captain. 

***

The almost universally accepted idea around the NHL that internal budget restrictions prevent David Poile from making the Predators a Cup winner seems ludicrous to me. There's a salary cap in this sport. Last year, the Predators sat at 80% of the highest-spending team's payroll. Meanwhile, that same year, in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays narrowly beat out the Yankees in the AL East, while spending a third as much on player contracts. And no one was surprised.

What accounts for this difference between the two sports? Are players in hockey just more easily valued, more obviously good or bad, making the ability to find bargains harder? Maybe. Are the differences in the respective Collective Bargaining Agreements to blame, with baseball favoring rookies making minimum wage instead of entry-level contracts? That's probably part of it. 

Perhaps though, hockey is where baseball was 20 years ago, with too many teams looking at players the exact same way. The secret that makes the Rays competitive, and made Michael Lewis' Moneyball a best seller, is that what makes a player more attractive to a team doesn't necessarily make him better. 

Shea Weber truly embodies what a franchise looks for in a defenseman. He's tough, competitive, physical. He has a booming shot and loves to throw big hits. He's a natural born leader and says "all the right things." But Ryan Suter is better. And maybe if the Predators want to start winning Stanley Cups on an internal budget, they need to start paying for talent and not Don Cherry's fantasy of the perfect hard-working Canadian kid. 

Don't misunderstand--Shea Weber is a great player. But a highest-paid-defenseman, $7.5 million-cap-hit player? Let some big market team scrape the cap ceiling, paying that little extra for Weber's stoicism, Olympic heroics, and beard-growing abilities. Nashville can pay less for more in Suter and spend the difference on filling holes. Let some other team trade young, cost-controlled offense for the privilege of signing Shea to an above-market rate contract.

The only answer to the above question--on how to silence doubters--is of course to just do it, to win it. No amount of internet-comment-section handwringing about Nashville's legitimacy as a hockey market will mean a damn thing, if a giant Shea Weber contract hamstrings the team to the point of never actually winning anything.

Maybe my wanting to sign Shea Weber at any cost and see the Predators reach the next level was just wanting to have my cake and eating it too. I wanted Shea Weber to sign with the Predators for the wrong reasons: because of how other people thought of him. But the Predators have never won by doing what people expected of them. Why start?

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