NASHVILLE — If you had to pick one shut-down defenceman in NHL history to patrol your blue line, it might be Scott Stevens. Plenty others would be in the conversation, but Stevens would definitely rise near the top of that list.
Everyone remembers Stevens as the captain, the heart and soul of the New Jersey Devils’ Stanley Cup-winning teams. What many forget is Stevens as the young, promising defenceman of the Washington Capitals before departing for St. Louis and then New Jersey and then the Hockey Hall of Fame.
A 26-year-old Stevens left Washington in 1990 after signing an offer sheet with the St. Louis Blues. Washington, whose general manager at the time was David Poile, opted not to match the Blues’ four-year, $5.145 million offer sheet. (Imagine what a 26-year-old Stevens would be worth in today’s market….)
In the end, Washington received five first-round draft picks as compensation for Stevens. Only two of those picks – Sergei Gonchar (14th overall in 1991) and Brendan Witt (11th overall in 1992) – went on to become successful mainstays in the NHL. Stevens has his name etched on Lord Stanley’s mug three times.
Twenty-two years later, Poile finds himself in a similar predicament with the Nashville Predators.
Shea Weber is the prototype defenceman right now in the NHL. People in the league think of Weber as a blend of Stevens and Al MacInnis, which is high praise he deserves. There is no one else currently in the league that compares to Weber, whose best years are ahead of him.
Weber is 26, like Stevens was in 1990, and just signed a mega 14-year offer sheet worth $110 million with the Philadelphia Flyers. Weber, the current face of Nashville’s franchise, has put the heat on Poile.
As you well know, Poile has two options: match Philadelphia’s offer sheet or let Weber walk away for four first-round picks (compensation that isn’t in the same stratosphere of Weber’s all-around value) and start a rebuild that the franchise can’t afford to enter at this point in time.
If Poile declines to match, he will have seen his two all-star defensemen exit stage left in a three-week span. It’s the doomsday scenario in Music City.
In the last year or two, Predators ownership has stated their commitment to winning, envisioning a Stanley Cup parade on Broadway in downtown Nashville. Ownership has led many to believe that they will spend to the salary-cap ceiling in the coming years. They’ve also said repeatedly that they would match an offer sheet to Weber.
“Our ownership has provided us with the necessary resources to build a Stanley Cup-winning team,” Poile said in a team-released statement on Thursday. “Due to the complexity of the offer sheet (to Weber), we will take the appropriate time to review and evaluate it and all of its ramifications in order to make the best decision for the Predators in both the short and long-term.”
Poile wouldn’t let Weber walk because of the draft-pick compensation – it would be because of the possible financial complications of matching. As much as it could be an obstacle to pay Weber the reported $27 million between now and July 1 of next summer, ownership must walk the walk.
The value of Weber to the Predators franchise is immense. Not only is he an important cog to the on-ice product, but his value to the marketing side of things cannot go unnoticed. And if the team doesn’t match Weber’s offer sheet, his loss (combined with Ryan Suter’s, to the Minnesota Wild) would send shockwaves throughout the franchise and its fan base.
The franchise has come too far in the last two years to see it fall apart so quickly. Poile has spent too much time over 14 years in getting the Predators to be a Stanley Cup contender to hit the restart button now.
Every GM hates losing, but Poile hates losing. He may not want to win more than any other GM, but no GM wants to win more than him.
But here’s the thing: Poile is 63 years old and may not be an NHL GM for many more years. Though he signed an extension back in February that will keep him in Nashville through 2015, assistant GM Paul Fenton well could be the GM-in-waiting – if he doesn’t end up being hired as GM elsewhere before Poile retires.
Not only would declining to match Weber’s offer sheet shut the window on the Predators’ title hopes for the foreseeable future, it would close the door on any chance Poile presently has of winning that elusive Stanley Cup he’s been chasing since for three decades.
Poile hated losing Stevens in 1990. In almost a re-run of that situation, Poile would be haunted for the rest of his general managing days if he loses Weber, too.
In many ways, Weber at his stage of his career is comparable to Stevens. As much as Weber is now known for his booming slap shot that tears through nets, at the end of the day he may be more known for shutting down the opposition at an elite level on a nightly basis, like Stevens did throughout his career.
And if Weber goes on to raise the Stanley Cup as many times as Stevens did, Poile better hope the NHL’s prototype defenseman is wearing Predator gold and not Flyer orange.