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Signing Weber important to franchise, city

When Ryan Suter announced on Wednesday morning that he would be signing a 13-year contract with the Minnesota Wild, it took roughly 20 seconds for the news to sink in before Predators fans turned their attention to the future of the team’s other star defenseman.

Shea Weber’s future with the franchise has been a hot topic since last summer when the two sides failed to work out a long-term contract. GM David Poile tried to secure the services of the captain for seven years, but couldn’t get him to sign on the dotted line. With the Suter situation behind him, Poile will again focus all of his attention on Weber, the 26-year-old restricted free agent.

How Poile approaches the negotiations this time around will have an impact on the organization for the next decade.

These are not typical negotiations. Negotiating with an all-world talent is a difficult proposition on its own. Negotiating a contract with a player you simply can’t afford to lose if you want to keep the franchise’s greatest asset in town and avoid a rebuilding cycle is even more difficult.

When you consider the current state of the organization, now is not the time to enter a rebuilding mode.

The organization has come a long way, both on and off the ice, in recent years. Just two years ago, thousands of tickets were available for Games 3 and 4 of the playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks a mere 48 hours before puck drop. This past season, tickets for regular season games against the Blackhawks sold for more than double face value on the secondary market.

In all, the Predators played in front of 25 sellout crowds last season, setting a new franchise record for sellouts in a single campaign. In 2009-10, the Predators played in front of four sellout crowds.

The ticket window isn’t the only place that the Predators are having success. During the 2012 postseason, Predators merchandise was selling at an all-time high.

“Retail revenue during the playoffs almost tripled compared with the regular-season numbers, which had doubled over the 2009-10 season,” said Sean Henry, the Predators’ president and chief operating officer.

For work reasons, I had to be at the arena two hours before faceoff of Game 4 against Phoenix in May. Because of my natural state of restlessness I couldn’t sit still, so I decided to walk around the arena to take in the sites and sounds. I covered every inch of the upper and lower bowls, just taking in the atmosphere.

As I walked past the main pro shop, I noticed a shoulder-to-shoulder throng of people waiting in line to buy hats, shirts and jerseys. The line was literally 75 people deep. As I continued my walk I noticed that every single merchandise stand I passed had a line of people waiting to pay for items. New fans were buying their first Predator hat and shirt while long-time fans were adding to their playoff memorabilia.

On this night, Bridgestone Arena was truly the place to be. The franchise’s popularity had soared to an all-time high.

It’s that type of atmosphere, the city’s collective attention focused on the Predators, that the organization can’t lose hold of.

On Sundays in the fall, LP Field is the ‘place to be’ in Nashville. Though the Predators will never surpass the Titans in terms of popularity – football will always be king here – that doesn’t mean Bridgestone Arena can’t be the place to be in its own right; becoming the center of the social scene 41 times a year is an obtainable goal for the organization. The Pittsburgh Penguins will never be more popular than the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Penguins have certainly carved out their niche.

The Predators have waited a decade and a half to reach their current level of popularity in Music City – and that’s what makes this offseason so difficult.

The franchise has fought hard to reach this point: a roster stocked to compete for the Stanley Cup, a fan base ready to explode with excitement, a venue on the verge of not just being the place to be a few times a year, but 41 times a year (plus the playoffs).

Now is simply not the time to enter into a rebuilding period, even if that rebuilding period only lasted a year. Losing Jordin Tootoo was a public relations hit. Losing Ryan Suter was a public relations nightmare. Losing Shea Weber would be catastrophic.

Predators’ fans have waited patiently as the franchise has evolved from the expansion era, to the playoff guarantee era, to the Summer of Balsille and now finally to the point where the franchise is able to compete financially with franchises in larger markets.

Even though reality has changed – the Predators are no longer bargain basement shoppers – perception from those that follow the franchise closely is still stuck in the past. Fans have watched Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Paul Kariya, Dan Hamhuis and Tomas Vokoun all leave town for financial reasons. And now you can add Ryan Suter to that list, albeit for different reason.

The thinking among most is that Weber will be the next homegrown talent that plays his prime years in another market.

National perception is very similar. Fans and analysts across the major U.S. media markets and Canada believe that the Predators are a well-run organization that drafts well and competes hard 82 times a year, but suffers from financial limitations.

In Nashville we know that the financial limitations are a thing of the past, but proving that is a different animal. Ryan Suter left town for family reasons and a desire to play with his longtime friend Zach Parise. The offer extended by Poile, 13 years worth $90 million, was more than competitive.

Despite that fact, perception is still stuck in the past because the reality is still the same. Another talented player left Nashville for greener pastures.

Fans want to be respected by the major media markets and entities, but they also need to see that the organization isn’t blowing smoke about spending to the cap. While the offer David Poile made to Ryan Suter was competitive, it wasn’t enough. Same song, different verse.

Weber committing to the Predators long-term not only changes perception, but it makes the Predators a destination franchise and not just a stepping-stone feeder to the big markets.

In addition to the fan base’s thirst for national respect, a unique opportunity for local respect also exists.

The title of “Nashville’s most popular athlete” is currently up for grabs. Shea Weber could easily obtain that title. Weber’s combination of size, physical play, brute force and booming point shot make him the type of player that turns casual observer into hardcore fan.

The moment he signs, Weber becomes the most popular athlete in town. It would mark the first time that a Predator was the unquestioned most popular man in town. Not since the days of Steve McNair and Eddie George (or Chris Johnson pre-holdout) has Nashville had that type of marquee name.

Poile took a risk with the Suter situation by allowing the negotiations to cast a shadow over the entire season, and ultimately lost him for nothing. He can’t allow that to happen with Weber. This will likely go down as the most important contract negotiation in franchise history.

The approach is very simple: skip the typical negotiation tactics and simply offer Weber the best contract they can afford to offer, as USA Today’s Kevin Allen suggested. No hemming and hawing. If Weber is hesitant then Poile must entertain the possibility of trading him.

While a trade wouldn’t be the end of the franchise, the impact simply wouldn’t be the same. Losing Weber would be a major hit to the momentum the organization has built. He is a bona fide superstar, arguably the best defenseman in the world. Any prospects acquired via trade are not guaranteed to reach that status.

(Weber, a Norris Trophy finalist the last two years, was on the ice for 47 of the 54 power-play goals the team scored last year. He leads all defensemen in goals (99) scored since 2005 and ranks 4th in power-play goals (46) by a defenseman since 2005.)

If Weber re-signs, the organization will not only retain the popularity that they have built up over the years, but see a continued growth.

Weber committing to the Predators long-term would prove that the franchise is committed to winning and spending whatever it takes to do just that. It would solidify the Predators locally and nationally.

Simply put, Weber signing on that dotted line would the greatest moment in franchise history.

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