For years the foundation provided by goalie Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer made the New Jersey Devils one of the best teams in the NHL because those players ranked among the very elite in the league at their respective positions.
At a time when a player on Stevens' par, Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, was earning 10.5 million per season, Stevens took below market value far below it. So did Brodeur. When the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2002-03, Brodeur and Stevens each topped out at 6.891 million apiece, a number that served, in effect, as the team's payroll ceiling in an era in which NHL teams were not constrained by a salary cap.
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile working in a time that does have a salary cap while managing a club that is not likely to spend to the cap's upper limit -- is now attempting to do the same thing.
He has one of the best goalies in the league in Pekka Rinne, who for the second straight season is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which is given to the NHL's top goaltender. In the fall, the Preds locked up Rinne at 7 million per season for seven seasons.
Now, Poile has to put the other two pieces of the puzzle together. Captain Shea Weber, who is a finalist for the Norris Trophy (top defenseman) for the second straight season, is a restricted free agent and the Preds own his rights at least for 2012-13. However, fellow All-Star Ryan Suter could become an unrestricted free agent as of July 1.
As of yet, Suter is still telling the Preds that he is considering playing for them next season, but that most likely he will test free agency. If he decides on the Preds, Poile, in a perfect world, will attempt to negotiate long-term deals for both Suter and Weber at the same time.
"What I'm going to need to do, if I have the ability to do this, is whether it's July first or July second -- whatever -- and Ryan says something to the effect that he'd like to come back to the Predators, then I need to bring them (Weber and Suter) both together and they're going to have to work together so that we can sign them to the correct contract so that we can be within the cap and put a competitive team on the ice that can challenge for the Stanley Cup," Poile said on Friday at a press conference whose audio was archived on the team's Web site. "That's always been their goal. They've told me that umpteen times and I said we're on the same page, so it's not just a one-off with Ryan."
So many assumptions underlie that premise and so much of the Predators' future rests on the outcome of Suter's and Weber's situations. Perhaps one of the most difficult is that once Suter hits the market, opposing teams are not only going to gauge Suter's interest, but they're going to present terms actual years and dollars.
No doubt Poile has discussed dollars and terms with Suter, but once the player has an offer in hand that could, in effect, make it more difficult for the Preds to match. Poile is a smart man and he obviously knows what it is going to take to re-sign Suter "and even when I refer to money, I think it's going to be somewhat equal," he said on Friday but getting two deals of such magnitude done at once necessarily complicates matters. Perhaps that's why Poile said Suter's impending free agency "worries me a lot."
It sounds as if one of Poile's key negotiating points is the chance to play with Weber, which is a negotiation that could prove every bit as trying as Suter's, if not more. Together, Poile said the two can go down as perhaps the greatest pair in NHL history. Getting both deals done at the same time would ensure that and also could ensure that the Preds would be a playoff contender for the period as long as their Big Three of Rinne, Weber and Suter remain healthy and playing at their current levels.
It's true that Weber and Suter complement each other almost perfectly and having played together for so long they know each other's tendencies on a level that must be almost subconscious. Suter's top suitors are said to be Minnesota and Detroit.
If Suter signs in Detroit, his partner is likely to be Nicklas Kronwall, a player with Weber's penchant for delivering crushing hits, but who might not be able to keep up with Suter in terms of his time on ice on a nightly basis and who also, like Suter, shoots left. If it's Minnesota, it's likely to be up-and-comer Tom Gilbert. Both are good players, but neither would seem to offer the all-around compatibility of Weber.
"With all due respect, if he was to go to another team, he could be playing with someone else and not that somebody else isn't good, but it's not Shea Weber," Poile said. "And, I mean, how much is that worth? To me, that's worth a lot."
Of course, one shouldn't solely choose where he will likely play out the remainder of his career based on potential defense partners. In this case, Poile's other negotiating point appears to be stability. The Preds have won a playoff round each of the last two seasons and appear on an upward arc. The Wild have only won a playoff round once in their history, the miracle season of 2002-03, their third year of existence. With the retirement of Lidstrom and other key players getting older, the Red Wings could be on the cusp of a downward arc unless they can reverse it through some major free-agent victories (like Suter).
The whole thing frustrates Poile, who is generally stoic by temperament.
"Ryan likes it here," he said. "This is the size of city he wants to play, this the amount of drive he wants to make to the rink, this is the amount of notoriety he wants to have, this is the amount of ice time he'd like to have. It's a little frustrating when I hear myself saying that because everything fits here with him."
If Suter decides to stay and Poile can pull off the signing of both he and Weber, he could have a Devils-like model on his hands. The problem with the Devils' model was that it crumbled when Niedermayer decided he didn't want to take less than market value and he bolted for the West Coast where he could play with his brother. Incidentally, he won a Cup in Anaheim while playing with Chris Pronger as the two ranked among the best in the league at their position.
If Suter elects to go somewhere else, it will not be the end of the road for the Preds, but it's certainly not ideal. Poile put it best when discussing what it would mean.
"I'm pretty sure they're working on a schedule next year," he said. "It's coming out on Thursday and I know it says the Predators will play 82 games. Everyone's been through this before and I'm not trying to be too funny about this or downplay it or what have you. Life moves on. Good things happen and bad things happen to franchises.
"Would it be a bad thing? Absolutely? Would it seem like it's unfair? Absolutely. But are we going to roll up the carpet and say that's it? Not a chance. We'll find a different way. It's what we always do.Who's to say we don't already have the next Ryan Suter already on our organization? You just never, never know."