Edge of Glory: Grading the Predators’ 2011 Offseason
We got the movie “Goon”. That’s the extent of the 2011 hockey-related positives.
Alright, so I normally start these offseason posts with some fun pop culture references from whatever summer we’re discussing. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how difficult the summer of 2011 was hockey as a whole, especially in the Nashville Predators community.
In August, we lost Wade Belak, a man beloved by practically everyone in Smashville—players, coaches, and fans alike. His death came just mere weeks after Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, two other players well-liked and respected across the league, lost their lives as well. Just weeks later, we’d be forced to cope with another tragedy, as the plane carrying the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed in Russia, killing 44 people. Many of the team were well-known NHL players, including former Preds Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, and 2007 draft pick Robert Dietrich. It was a dark offseason for hockey around the world.
Now, let’s transition back to the roster-moves part of the Summer. And...sigh...yeah that was awful too.
From a pure hockey standpoint alone, this is probably the worst offseason in Predators history, and yes, I’m including 2007 in that. When you see the moves, you’ll know why. But first, let’s start on a higher note.
The Previous Season
Record: 44-27-11 (99 points), 2nd in Central, 5th in West, 10th overall
Playoffs: Defeated the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals (4-2)
Lost to the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference Semifinals (4-2)
The major headline here: Yay, the Predators finally won a playoff series!
After a decade filled with close calls that saw the Predators fall JUST short, Barry Trotz and company turned the tables on the Anaheim Ducks. Their thrilling Game 5 overtime set the stage for a Game 6 series-clinching win at a raucous Bridgestone Arena (by that time, finally actually named Bridgestone Arena). The Preds wound up losing to Vancouver, the eventual Western Conference champs, in Round 2, but hey, sometimes you just have to be happy to get where you get.
The preceding regular season had its fair share of memorable moments as well. Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne became the first Predators to become finalists for a skill-based end-of-season award (Weber for the Norris and Rinne for the Vezina). Meanwhile, Sergei Kostitsyn, a guy the Preds acquired for scraps the previous summer, led the team in goals (23) and points (50).
The trade deadline also gave us an important nugget in the Predators’ timeline. The team sent a first round pick to Ottawa for Mike Fisher, the man who’d eventually captain the Preds’ Cup run in 2017. It was somewhat of a discount deal for the Preds. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk hinted there were better offers on the table, but the team preferred the Preds’ deal so Fisher could be closer to his wife, Carrie Underwood. So regardless of what you think about Melnyk today, at least there’s that tidbit?
The Offseason Moves
Key Additions: D Victor Bartley (free agent from Djurgårdens IF of the Swedish Elite League), F Niclas Bergfors (free agent from the Panthers), F Zack Stortini (free agent from the Oilers), D Jack Hillen (free agent from the New York Islanders).
Draft Class: G Magnus Hellberg (2nd round, 38th overall), F Miikka Salomäki (2nd round, 52nd overall), F Josh Shalla (4th round, 94th overall), D Garrett Noonan (4th round, 112th overall), D Simon Karlsson (5th round, 142nd overall), F Chase Balisy (6th round, 170th overall), F Brent Andrews (7th round, 202nd overall).
Key Losses: F J.P. Dumont (contract bought out, signed with SC Bern of NLA), Andreas Thuresson (traded to the New York Rangers), F Joel Ward (free agent to the Capitals), F Steve Sullivan (free agent to the Penguins), F Marcel Goc (free agent to the Panthers), D Shane O’Brien (free agent to the Avalanche), D Cody Franson (traded to the Maple Leafs), F Matthew Lombardi (also traded to the Maple Leafs).
Best Move: Drafting F Miikka Salomäki
I told you this was a horrendous offseason, didn’t I? That’s not meant to be a slam at Salomäki, because truthfully, I do like him as a player.
But yeah, any season where he’s your best pick-up is...uhh...not ideal.
The Predators selected used their second pick of the 2011 draft on the Finnish forward. At the time, Salomäki impressed scouts with his defensive IQ and his willingness to play a physical style in spite of his size. He also displayed the occasional offensive pop, including his eight-point (3G, 5A) performance in the 2013 World Junior Championship.
After two more years in Finland, Salomäki arrived in North America for the start of the 2013-2014 season and paid instant dividends. He scored 20 goals and added 30 assists for the Admirals. The next season, Salomäki debuted for the Predators, scoring his first NHL goal in his premiere game, a 3-2 Nashville win over Dallas.
Salomäki earned a call-up a month into the 2015-16 campaign, and at that point, it looked like he had secured a permanent spot on the main roster. He remained with the Preds for the rest of the season, scoring five goals and five assists in 61 games while slowly collecting more penalty-killing responsibility throughout the year. Salomäki appeared in all 14 Preds playoff games, picking up a goal and assist.
The next season is when Salomäki’s plateau started, and to be fair, it was a case of bad luck and circumstances more than anything. Two separate injuries (the second during a conditioning stint in Milwaukee) cost Salomäki nearly five months of the 2016-17 season. He fought his way back for the playoffs, but by that time, playing time in the Preds’ bottom six was hard to come by—thanks to the rise of players like Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, and Austin Watson, and the additions of Cody McLeod and Vern Fiddler. Salomäki did play six playoff games, but it was on a rotational basis.
From there on out, Salomäki struggled to stay in the lineup full time. And in early 2020, after being waived by Nashville at the start of the year, he was traded to Toronto. He recently signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche.
I know this section is supposed to scream “best move,” so here’s a positive spin on Salomäki’s time in Nashville. Whenever he played, he was brilliant defensively. In terms of a pure defensive forward—someone you’d love to see on the ice with a slim lead late in a tight game—Salomäki was probably top three on the Preds in that regard. But looking at his overall game, the Preds simply had better options for the bottom six.
Worst Move: The Botched Shea Weber RFA Negotiations
You really can go through the list of offseason moves and choose your favorite “bad move” for this section. However, none of them featured the drama, intrigue, and long-term consequences of the Shea Weber negotiations in the summer of 2011.
So to set the stage, Shea Weber became a restricted free agent for the second time in his career at the end of the 2010-11 season. At that point, it was safe to call Weber one of the NHL’s top five best defenders. He was the Norris runner-up the previous season, and was just a few years removed from a 23-goal season. He also happened to be the team captain, you know, the guy who’s supposed to be the de facto face of the franchise.
The Preds and Weber had failed to agree on an extension over the course of the previous season, and to eliminate the possibility of an offer sheet, David Poile elected to schedule salary arbitration. That in itself wasn’t a bad move, even though arbitrations with team captains is rare. Countless times, we’ve seen young players or their teams elect salary arbitration, only to sign a new deal a week later, long before their scheduled hearing.
This surely was going to be one of those cases. Weber’s camp said they wanted to stay in Nashville long term. Poile said he was hopeful a deal was close. All signs pointed to a deal being done soon; there were just a few minor details to hash out.
Days passed, then days became weeks, and those weeks became two months. There was no deal. There was no hint from insiders that a deal was even close. As the date of the arbitration hearing approached, fans started to wonder “is there more happening behind the scenes we don’t know about?”
There’s a big reason teams and players alike try to avoid arbitration. It’s a pure business negotiation. The player pitches why he’s worth every penny he asks for, while the teams lists every negative aspect of the player’s game in hopes of convincing a judge “these guys aren’t worth that much.” It has the potential to be a volatile situation, and the Preds had first-hand experience with that. Denny Lambert was traded in 1999 just days after his hearing, following whispers he was unhappy with how the Preds viewed him as a player.
It’s one thing to go through that with a mid-level player whose long-term status on the team is still unknown. It’s quite enough to go through it with your team captain, just weeks removed from being voted the second-best defender in the NHL.
So when Shea Weber’s hearing started, it was already a massive failure for the Preds. Weber asked for an $8 million, one-year deal. The Predators’ response? One year, $4.75 million...a $250,000 per-year raise for Weber. It was a low-ball offer of epic proportions.
Now sure, you can argue from Poile’s standpoint, this was all “just business.” You’re doing whatever you can to lock up your star player for the most affordable deal possible.
But put yourself in Shea Weber’s shoes. You’re team captain. You just got nominated for a Norris. You’re a gold medalist and legitimate NHL superstar at this point. And your bosses, who just picked up their first playoff series win thanks in large part to you, are doing their best to pay you well below your market value.
The arbitrator eventually awarded Weber a one-year, $7.5 million deal, which to date is still, by far, the most lucrative contract ever awarded by an NHL arbitrator. The deal ensured Shea Weber would be a restricted free agent again the following summer, restarting negotiations all over again.
Of course, that led to a different predicament in 2011-12. Not only was Weber playing on a one-year deal, but his blueline partner, Ryan Suter, was also due to be a restricted free agent. Now there are obviously tons of varying reports about the status of each player’s negotiations. But the general story, according to Bob McKenzie and others, were that both Suter and Weber wanted to stay in Nashville, but were wary of committing to the team long-term without the other one following suit.
Well, somewhere along the line, Suter changed his mind and signed with the Minnesota Wild. That led Weber to weigh his options elsewhere, which in turn led to him signing a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet with the Flyers. The Preds, who had just lost Suter for nothing, matched the offer, releasing a bullet-pointed list detailing their decision. The list wasn’t necessary. The decision came down to one realization: Nashville couldn’t afford to lose Weber.
The three huge signings of that offseason—Suter and Zach Parise’s matching deals with Minnesota, and Weber’s offer sheet with Philadelphia—have been cited as one of the owners’ complaints that led to the 2012 lockout.
Flash forward to today, and the Preds could still feel the pain of Weber’s contract via the cap recapture situation. Under the new rules, if Weber retires before his contract is over, the Preds could be docked $7.8 million in cap space per year over a three-year stretch—or more, depending on how much time is left on the contract.
The fact is the Predators could have avoided this back all the way back in 2011. Now sure, we don’t know everything that was happening behind the scenes, and there’s a strong chance Weber’s camp were either making outrageous demands or dragging their feet. But gambling on arbitration as a shield backfired, and not getting a deal made before the hearing is one of Poile’s most glaring failures as a GM.
Alright, I turned the Weber arbitration into a thesis, so I’ll keep the rest of this brief.
Look at the departures: Steve Sullivan, Joel Ward, Shane O’Brien, Cody Franson—heck, even Marcel Goc. All were key cogs for the Predators who still played at a high level after leaving Nashville.
(Also, side note: I completely forgot to include the Matthew Lombardi signing in my 2010 recap. And it’s good news for Lombardi, because he EASILY would have been the “worst move” for that summer. He played just two games for the Preds after signing a three-year deal.)
As for the additions/draft class, I simply ask you; who on that list made a significant impact with the Preds? Vic Bartley maybe? Jack Hillen, for one year? The most highly-touted addition at the time was Niclas Bergfors, and he was put on waivers a month and a half into the season.
It was a bad summer. Luckily, it gave way to a fun 2011-12 season.
The Final Grade
At least the re-brand to gold looked cool.
Your turn to weigh in:
What Grade Would You Give the Predators’ 2011 Offseason?