The Nashville Predators went for broke … then broke the bank.
Never in team history have personnel moves elicited such extreme emotions, from the fans as well as some of the franchise’s top officials.
The latter part of the 2011-12 season and the months that set up the yet-to-start 2012-13 campaign were a dramatic departure from the norm in terms of how the club operated and what it was willing to do to build and maintain its roster. In short, the Predators had money and were not afraid to spend it.
The defining moment came in July when Nashville opted to match the 14-year, $110 million offer sheet defenseman and team captain Shea Weber signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. The decision came after several days of internal meetings and with the full understanding of the challenges such a deal can create for a franchise that is far from the league’s wealthiest.
“To me, it’s the biggest signing in franchise history,” coach Barry Trotz said at the time. “Not only to have a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, your captain, but really going forward the signing sends a huge message, not only to our own team but to the rest of the league … that we’re serious about contending every year and we have the team to do that.”
The move restored a measure of order and optimism three weeks after Ryan Suter, Weber’s long-time defense partner, spurned the Predators and accepted a similarly massive offer from the Minnesota Wild (13 years, $98 million). Given that Suter was an unrestricted free agent, there was nothing the Predators could do but watch their 2003 first-round draft pick go.
General manager David Poile made it clear that he felt misled by Suter in negotiations, which began in earnest roughly a year earlier and continued intermittently throughout the season. Ultimately, the player seized an opportunity to play closer to his home in Wisconsin and with long-time friend and fellow free agent Zach Parise, who signed a matching deal with the Wild.
“I think this is a real missed opportunity,” Poile said. “[Weber and Suter] could have gone down as the best defensive pair ever in the National Hockey League history. I think they were certainly heading that way.”
Months before his failed efforts keep his team together, Poile went to great lengths to bolster the roster for Nashville’s seventh playoff appearance in eight seasons.
First, he reached into the Eastern Conference and acquired defenseman Hal Gill and forward Andrei Kostitsyn in separate deals with the Montreal Canadiens and center Paul Gaustad from Buffalo in a transaction that was executed in the final minutes before the trade deadline.
Not long after, he reached around the globe and finally brought back forward Alexander Radulov, who four years earlier ignored his existing contract with Nashville and signed to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. During that time, many regarded the offensively gifted but enigmatic Radulov as the best player anywhere outside the U.S.
There was some measure of protest around the league in regard to Nashville’s ability to simply add him to the roster, but there was no question that with him and the other three the Predators had done as much as any team to strengthen their roster for the postseason.
Ultimately, things did not go as planned.
For the second straight year, Nashville was eliminated in the second round — this time in five games by the Phoenix Coyotes. Radulov and Kostitsyn were suspended for one game in that series and benched for another. Nashville lost three one-goal games and scored just once in the final two.
So was it worth it?
That remains to be seen.
Radulov was allowed to return to Russia without much resistance and no effort was made to re-sign Kostitsyn. The team did get new deals with Gill and Gaustad before the start of free agency before it lost Suter and held on to Weber.
In September, owners locked out players immediately upon expiration of the last collective bargaining agreement, and negotiations have yet to produce a new deal. Training camps never opened and no games have been played.
Among other things, owners want to put in place safeguards that will make deals like Suter’s and Weber’s the last of their kind in both scope and structure. Whatever happens, both contracts are bound to have a lasting effect on the Predators.