When the Nashville Predators broke into the NHL as an expansion franchise in 1998-99, their team payroll was $13.6 million. For the 2012-13 season, the Predators will be paying Shea Weber $14 million.
Obviously, that’s a clear sign of inflation across the NHL. (In 1998-99, only nine players earned a salary of $6 million or more. If the 2012-13 season started today there would be 53 making at least that much.)
But it’s also a clear sign of how far the Predators have come as a franchise.
Consider this: the Predators are one of four teams to have a player signed to a $100 million contract. They are also one of five teams to have two players (Weber and Pekka Rinne) in the Top 20 cap hits for NHLers.
When you consider the state of the franchise a short five years ago – even two years ago when they had trouble selling out playoff games against Chicago – that is unheard of and unprecedented.
“We’ve been good on the ice for a long time, but now our business operations are as good as our hockey operations,” Predators chairman Tom Cigarran said Wednesday.
To branch out on Cigarran’s comment, one of the best things the Predators ever did was appoint Jeff Cogen as CEO and Sean Henry as COO prior to the 2010-11 campaign. What Cogen and Henry have meant to the Predators’ franchise is immeasurable. They deserve much of the credit for the sellouts at Bridgestone Arena being on the uptick that they are.
In 2009-10, the Predators only had four sellouts. They had 16 and 25 sellouts in the last two seasons, respectively, the latter being a franchise record – and that does not include the playoffs. As a result, the average attendance numbers have skyrocketed, going from 14,979 in 2009-10 to 16,690 in 2012-13.
“Our season ticket renewals are the highest in the history of the franchise. There are all kinds of good things happening to this franchise that say we’re going to be here for a long time,” said Cigarran, who didn’t expect this extent of rapid success when Cogen and Henry came on board two years ago.
“I expected that they would certainly make it better, but I had no idea how much better … I was delighted by how much better and how fast they did it and how good they (Cogen and Henry) really are. They are first-rate.”
And it goes both ways. Cogen and Henry wouldn’t be able to put butts in seats without the Predators putting together their two most successful seasons in franchise history. The team’s success has certainly helped in that area, along with the major influence coming from the front office.
That success and growth from both the business and hockey side of things is a major reason why Weber will be donning Predator Gold this winter instead of Flyer Orange.
As Cogen explained at the press conference outside of Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, “From a hockey perspective the answer was always, yes, match. The business decision was a little more complex. At the end of the day I really came down to one issue for our group, and that was we have the best fans in the National Hockey League and we owe it to these fans to continue to do what we’ve been doing and build upon it and not go backwards. It came down to that simple point.
“For you fans that provided us 25 sellouts last year; to you fans that fill the building and make us more appealing to corporate Middle Tennessee, where they step up and also support our organization; and you fans that doubled our television ratings last year – this is for you, it’s deserved and we can’t wait to get started and prove to you that we made the right decision.”
Head coach Barry Trotz added, “We’ve been through a lot. I’ve been there from Day One. There were a lot of cants when I got there. Over the course of the years we’ve eliminated those cants. This is a good example of it.
“Would we have been able to do [this with] Shea Weber eight years ago? Probably not. A contract like that, it probably was not in the cards. But we’ve grown as a franchise.”
The Predators took on the challenge when Philadelphia signed Weber to an offer sheet that two years ago this franchise probably would have had to walk away from.
“When Philadelphia did what they did – they said ‘Here it comes’ (the offer sheet),” Poile explained Wednesday, “I didn’t say it out loud, but I said to myself ‘Bring it on,’ because now we were in control and had a chance to sign our best player for 14 years.”
Weber added, “Obviously they were challenged and they stepped up, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.”
For many years the Predators have seen their better players head elsewhere, only to make Nashville appear as a stepping-stone franchise from a league-wide point of view. With Weber locked up for 14 years and Rinne under contract for seven years, those days are gone for the foreseen future.
The loss of Ryan Suter will hurt, but the loss of Weber would have been devastating to the franchise. With the captain now signed, it means the Predators can preserve their Cup-contending status with another addition here and there, along with the continued development of their youth.
“I’ve been around the team a long time and I can tell you I’m as excited about this team as any team we’ve had,” Trotz said on a conference call Wednesday. “We’re not in a rebuilding mode at all. We’re in a go-forward mode to win a Stanley Cup.”
The Predators could win the Stanley Cup three times in the next five years and still possess the small-market moniker, still be a team that big-market fans and media look down upon. But that doesn’t mean the Predators won’t keep fighting for that respect.
Said Cigarran, “The Predators are not here just to survive, but to be an elite franchise that competes for the Cup every year. Our players, players with other organizations, and those organizations can now see that the Nashville Predators will not be pushed around by teams from bigger markets.
“There’s an old saying: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. This is very true. This dog will fight on and off the ice.”