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Debate: Who is most important to re-sign?

(Editorial note: We are pleased to welcome Jacob Underwood to the Smashville 24/7 staff! When it comes to the Predators Hockey, no one is more knowledgeable than Jacob. We look forward to adding his perspective for what should be an interesting off-season here in Nashville!)

More than half of the Predators’ 2012 playoff roster is without a contract for next season, including Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Alexander Radulov. Of those three, who is the most important to re-sign? Jacob and I debate…

Big picture, Weber is the biggest domino
By Ryan Porth

Last August there weren’t too many Predators fans happy with the direction the negotiations went between captain Shea Weber and the team.

In short, GM David Poile filed for arbitration to eliminate the possibility of an offer sheet being placed on Weber, who was a restricted free agent. Negotiations didn’t go well, the process officially headed into arbitration and the arbiter awarded Weber with a $7.5 million contract for this past season.

Immediately thereafter, Poile and Weber said all the right things and turned their attention towards the 2011-12 season.

Almost a year later, Weber again enters the off-season as a RFA; it is the last summer that the two-time Norris Trophy finalist can be under the Predators’ control. If he opts to sign another one-year deal, he will be staring at unrestricted free agency next summer.

The Predators absolutely cannot let it get to that point.

All of the attention over the last 10 days has been directed towards Suter, and rightfully so. The star defenseman is an unrestricted free agent and is due for a big payday, whether it comes with the Predators or another team.

If Suter signs elsewhere it wouldn’t be the end of the world – but how it would affect Weber’s future is crucial.

Suter and Weber are easily the top defense pairing in the NHL. They have great chemistry on the ice, a solid friendship off of it. How would Weber react to Suter signing a substantial contract with a big market club? How would Batman react to not having Robin by his side? That is a very important question mark that no one knows the answer to.

The ultimate doomsday scenario would be watching both Suter and Weber exit stage left within the next year. Without one of them, Poile can patch things together and possibly spend of that money elsewhere to keep the team’s status of being a contender.

Without both of them? It’s something that would be unfathomable for most who have watched this team in recent years. The Predators would have a completely different look and the questions about the team’s ability to keep its best players would resurface.

There is a belief that Suter and Weber are a package deal – that if Suter leaves, Weber won’t be far behind; or if Suter re-signs, Weber will follow suit. The latter part of that may be premature, but the fact that they are a package deal is something Poile hinted towards after the season.

“We eventually, just like Ryan [Suter], would like to sign Shea to a longer term contract. They are separate, but they are tied in. Whatever conversation I have in general with Ryan, I’m going to have with Shea, and vice versa. They are tied in as one going forward. They are the key building blocks of our team,” Poile said.

Weber, the NHL’s best defenseman, is the most important piece of this off-season because of everything he brings to the table.

From a national standpoint, Weber is the first player that comes to mind when you think of the Predators.

From a marketing standpoint, Weber is the player the Predators would ideally like to surround their organization around. He’s the guy the average fan knows because of his booming slap shot, big hits and the ‘C’ on his chest. He’s the first superstar in franchise history.

Not to take anything away from Suter, but his playing style can somewhat be replaced. Suter is irreplaceable, but puck-moving defensemen grow in trees; in fact, the Predators have one in their organization (Roman Josi) that could be a top-pair defenseman by NHL standards in a couple years.

Complete-package defensemen like Weber don’t grow on trees.

Weber brings a certain wow factor that simply cannot be replaced. On the ice he hits like Scott Stevens and shoots like Al MacInnis. Off the ice he’s the most marketable player and a fan favorite.

The Predators have to lock up Weber long-term, and it has to happen this summer. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. If they enter the 2012-13 season with Weber under contract for just one year, and without Suter, the clouds around ‘Smashville’ will turn ominous.

The end result with Weber, good or bad, will play a big role in the Predators’ future – more so than Suter.

Radulov will set the whole off-season tone
By Jacob Underwood

The Predators enter the 2012 off-season with more questions than they do answers. What does the future hold for Suter and Weber? Is Colin Wilson ready to be a top-six player for 82 games at the NHL level? How do you address the need at center?

While these are all key questions Poile will look to answer in the coming weeks, no question looms larger than the future of Radulov.

As Poile assesses this off-season, there are many cut-and-dry decisions. Does he decide to re-sign guys like Brandon Yip, Jordin Tootoo and Francis Bouillon, or let them hit the market on July 1? Yes, Suter is a key piece to the off-season puzzle, but he holds all of the cards. The Predators would love to bring him back; it’s up to Suter to decide what he thinks is best for his future. Sign long-term in Nashville or hit the open market on July 1st?

With Radulov, the Predators hold most of the cards.

Poile, along with team chairman Tom Cigarran, have both made it very clear that the franchise will spend this off-season. They will do everything in their power to acquire (or re-sign) a dynamic top-six forward. As we saw once again this postseason, the team still needs a dynamic game-changer that can make the type of plays to turn a series.

Radulov is the most important piece to the off-season puzzle due in large part to the number of possibilities that exist. Let’s be honest: this is one of, if not the most unique team/player relationships in the NHL.

While the enigmatic Russian didn’t produce as many highlight reel moments as some may have envisioned upon his return, he did contribute 13 points in 17 games, postseason included, and once again showed flashes of being an elite offensive talent.

Possibilities range from re-signing him to a long-term deal to stay in Nashville, to Radulov choosing to return to the KHL for the 2012-13 season. Radulov said last week that he’d like to stay in Nashville.

“I’m really happy to be back and I enjoyed it a lot here,” he said. “I would like to come back, but I have no contract.”

Assuming he does make the decision to stay, the Predators find themselves in a great spot. In that scenario, the first question Poile has to ask himself is whether or not Radulov is the guy that fits the top-six hole that currently exists on the depth chart.

We haven’t seen enough of a sample to determine for sure whether Radulov is a really good or elite NHL player. Will Radulov work hard every time he hits the ice? Will he be a model citizen on and off the ice? Will he fit in the locker room? Most importantly, can he play the Predators way?

One thing is for certain, you can’t deny Radulov’s talents. The question is: how much of a commitment is Poile willing to make?

Re-signing Radulov is the simplest solution. A contract in the neighborhood of three-to-five years for four-to-five million per year would fit what the team is looking for. This would fill the top-six hole and make Poile’s life easier as he looks to fill other holes. The unknown is what Radulov wants. It’s this unkown that will cause Poile to proceed with caution.

Simply put, Poile has to do everything he can to keep Radulov and his North American agent, Jay Grossman, happy during negotiations. The Predators are already on the verge of losing Suter for a fraction of what he’s worth. Radulov is an asset that the franchise can’t afford to squander. Just 25 years old, Radulov is sure to fetch a decent amount in a trade if Poile elected to go that route.

If Poile made it known that he was open to trading Radulov’s rights, he would become one of the most talented available forwards this summer. A legitimate bidding war could ensue. The package may well fill other needs, maybe even a possible replacement for Suter. At the very least, the Predators would get a couple of quality draft picks in return.

While many unknowns surround Radulov, one thing isn’t in question – his talent. The Predators must find a way to take advantage of his talent and keep him in North America, whether he’s in Nashville or not.

This summer is all about asset management. As it stands today, Radulov is the Predators’ best asset.

Maximizing that potential is critical.

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