With Weber deal, Predators shift from working-class model to study in capitalism

Monday, July 30, 2012 at 9:05pm

If the Nashville Predators were a high-rise condo, it would be time to unlock the penthouse. If they were a turn-of-the-century cruise ship, steerage would be a lot more crowded these days. If they were … well, you get the picture.

Once a utopian society of sorts, absent a caste system and with a roster built on near-economic equality, the local National Hockey League franchise suddenly is a study in capitalism.

The decision by management last week to match the Philadelphia Flyers 14-year, $110 million contract offer to defenseman Shea Weber added to the upper crust and increased the growing divide between tycoons (Weber and goalie Pekka Rinne) and the middle class that for so long has been the backbone of the franchise.

“I think there’s a model that we’re going to have to adopt,” general manager David Poile said. “I’m not sure exactly what that model is. … You can have maybe four really expensive players — that seems to be the model. Maybe you can do it like a depth chart — one goalie, one defenseman, two forwards. Maybe that’s how you can do it. If you have six guys making $7.5 million, I don’t think that’s going to work in any system.”

Make no mistake: The times they are a-changin’.

As recently as the 2010-11 season, the Predators did not have a single player who counted as much as $5 million against the salary cap. There was almost a perfect split among the 36 players who appeared in at least one game for them during that season of those whose NHL salary was more than $1 million and those whose was less.

Weber broke ground on the high-rent district last season when he cashed in with a one-year, $7.5 million award through arbitration. His cap number for the coming season is $7.8 million. He has company in Rinne, whose cap number is an even $7 million, which is where it will stay over a seven-year span.

The projected salary cap for 2012-13 is $70.2 million, but that figure potentially could drop, pending the resolution of negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.

At the very least, therefore, those two players alone account for more than 20 percent of what the team is allowed to spend on salary, mandating that players further down the depth chart will earn less than what has been the custom. For example, roughly six weeks before the scheduled start of training camp, there are six players scheduled to have a cap number between $3 million and $4.999 million, which would be the fewest over a five-year span. The number of players who will count between $1 million and $2.9 million nearly doubled from 2010-11 to 2011-12.

More than half the players currently under contract have salary cap figures of less than $3 million.

“We want to be an elite franchise that is actively competing for the top every year,” Tom Cigarran, head of the ownership group, said. “And there have been franchises like that … so there is a model for doing that, and that’s what we’re shooting for — not just to be good one year and then we rebuild, but year after year.

“To do that, you make long-term decisions. In some cases, if hockey operations had proved that if we paid Shea Weber this money we wouldn’t have anyone around him and we couldn’t be competitive, then we would have had to say no. We looked at that not just next year, but three or four years out.”

The belief (the hope maybe?) among franchise leaders is that the big money deals will drive up of the perceived value of a spot on the roster and make the Predators a more attractive destination for those who currently reside elsewhere. Rather than just drive through, some might want to stop and consider staying.

It’s the sports world’s version of gentrification.

“Going forward, the signing sends a huge message — not only to our own team but to the rest of the league and that — that we’re serious about contending every year, and we have the team to do that,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Having Shea in the fold for the long-term, he’s going to be a big part of us going forward, getting the talent that we need and making our team better with one goal in mind — to win the Stanley Cup.”

The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last season with a roster that included one player whose salary cap value was $7 million (defenseman Drew Doughty); and three others who counted for more than $5 million; forwards Anze Kopitar ($6.8 million) and Mike Richards ($5.75 million), both of whom spent the entire season in Los Angeles; and forward Jeff Carter ($5.27 million), a late-season trade acquisition.

They also had 10 players who spent all or most of the season in the NHL who counted less than $1 million each against the cap.

Boston, however, won a year earlier with only one player with a cap number above $5 million (defenseman Zdeno Chara), one with a cap number of exactly $5 million (goalie Tim Thomas) and nine who counted between $3 million to $5 million.

“Detroit has done what we just did,” Poile said. “They’ve done that with three or four contracts — long-term contracts that tail off at the end so the player gets what he wants — more money sooner — and the team gets what they want — a lower cap number. …

“I have my staff help me every day on different things, like a list of goalie salaries in order. What are people paying for both of their goalies? … We kind of compare models, and it gets complicated. Then we get into cash versus cap. Right now we’re ahead of a lot of teams in cash. In cap we’re not. So it’s a little bit of a balance.”