Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber could be the first restricted free agent this offseason to go all the way to arbitration after months of negotiations between Weber and the Predators have yielded no results in terms of a contract extension for next season – and after.
Weber, whose arbitration hearing was scheduled for this morning, was rumored to be seeking roughly $8 million a season. However, Nashville reportedly wants to lock up Weber long-term for $4.5 million a season – a ludicrously low salary if indeed that rumor has any factual merit. However, Nashville certainly could be looking to retain Weber with a long-term front-loaded contract that could keep his cap hit relatively low, but for a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL, it appears as if the Predators would like to retain their top talent for as low as possible – something highly unlikely if negotiations proceed to arbitration.
Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs will make $6.5 million this season. Both Phaneuf and Weber share similarities in their size and punishing style of play, but Weber, who is a year younger, is a better defenseman and was even nominated for the Norris Trophy last season as the league’s best defenseman. Phaneuf was nominated for the Norris in 2007-08. Weber’s camp will likely cite some of these similarities during the arbitration hearing to convince the arbitrator that Weber deserves at least $6.5 million a season, and likely more.
The problem is that there aren’t many contracts for solid, young defenders to compare to. In fact, Weber’s arbitration award could set the curve for other young restricted free agent defenders such as Zach Bogosian of the Winnipeg Jets and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings. In fact, there has been speculation that negotiations between Doughty and the Kings have been so slow because both sides are waiting to see what kind of deal Weber gets and use that deal as a starting point for negotiations.
Going to arbitration could have ill effects on the relationship between Weber and the Predators as well. If rumors are true that Nashville was trying to secure Weber for $4.5 million a season, Weber could see that as a sign that the team isn’t willing to spend to retain their top talent and build a winner, giving Weber incentive to leave when his arbitration awarded deal ends and he can become an unrestricted free agent. With Weber’s size and shot, surely any team would be happy to give Weber what he deserves in a heartbeat.
Since Nashville opted to initiate the arbitration, they are required to submit to the arbitrator’s award no matter what the outcome, as opposed to player-requested arbitrations where a team can choose to walk away from the award if they don’t agree with the amount and allow the player to become a free agent. This makes it hard to believe that Nashville would low-ball Weber with $4.5 million a season knowing he will likely recieve $6 million per season or more through arbitration, lending credence to rumors that perhaps Weber was looking for a higher salary, shorter term deal that would allow him to test the market as an unrestrtced free agent in a couple of years.
Regardless the outcome, Weber’s arbitration hearing today could have drastic ramifications both for Nashville and Weber, but also throughout the league as other teams will look to use his salary award as precedent for signing their players. And take note – Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne and defenseman Ryan Suter will also be watching this scenario unfold very closely as both are set to become unrestricted free agents next season. If Nashville isn’t willing to spend the money on Weber, a proverbial tent-pole of the team, then why would they be willing to spend on Suter and Rinne? Both could opt for greener pastures when their time comes.