While both parties said reaching arbitration wasn't ideal, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile and captain Shea Weber said Wednesday their relationship remains sound and more work will be done to keep the Norris Trophy runner-up in Tennessee for a long time.
Weber was awarded a one-year, $7.5 million contract for the 2011-12 season after a hearing Tuesday in Toronto. He will be a restricted free agent again next summer if the two sides don't agree to a deal, but the Predators won't be able to ask for salary arbitration and other teams would be eligible to negotiate an offer sheet with him starting July 1, 2012.
"We negotiated long and hard for many, many meetings. We talked from a one-year contract to a longer-term contract," Poile said. "As they say, 'Why didn't you get it done?' Well, we just couldn't quite agree on the term, the length or the structure. We just didn't get it done. From our standpoint, that is a little disappointing. We would certainly like the certainty of our captain signed to a long-term contract, but that's not to say he's not going to. It offers us a challenge. It certainly keeps me and the rest of our organization focused with our eye on the ball and what we have to do."
Added Weber: "It is nice to get this arbitration process out of the way here for now and hopefully this can lead to further negotiations between my agents and the Predators and hopefully we can get something long term. For now, a one-year deal is done and I'm excited to get ready for the season."
The biggest reason teams and players try to avoid having to appear before an independent arbiter is the risk of collateral damage from the hearing. Teams have to provide evidence why the player doesn't deserve the money he is seeking, and that can lead to hard feelings.
Both Poile and Weber said on multiple occasions during a conference call Tuesday that such a problem will not exist after this arbitration process.
"Yeah, for sure," Weber said when asked if he still had a good relationship with the team. "I think that was just part of the business. Obviously no one wants it to come to that, but it is what it is. We've got something in place for now. Hopefully that can allow more time to get something longer-term done. Now it is just time to focus on hockey. It has been a long process, a little bit stressful and draining, but now I can just get ready for the season."
Weber finished second in the Norris Trophy voting last season after scoring 16 goals and 48 points for the Predators, who were able to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history. He has 78 goals since the start of the 2006-07 season, which is tied with Washington's Mike Green for the most at the position.
He has also earned a reputation as one of the top all-around defenseman in the League, and Weber will now be compensated like it. His $7.5 million hit against the salary cap will be the highest among defensemen, though four others (Christian Ehrhoff, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith and Chris Pronger) will make more money than Weber in 2011-12.
"Shea, by this award, certainly got recognized as one of the top, if not the best defenseman in all of the National Hockey League," Poile said. "As the captain of the Predators, this is something we've known, if you will, for a lot of years."
While Poile will continue to work with Weber's agents on a long-term contract, his attention will soon be divided among all three of Nashville's top young players. Weber's defense partner, Ryan Suter, and goaltender Pekka Rinne, are both slated to be unrestricted free agents after next season.
Poile's challenge now is negotiate contracts for all three. Suter will make $3.5 million this coming season and Rinne will make $4 million (with a $3.4 million cap hit). Both are, like Weber, among the top young players in the game at their positions and are likely to command a significant raise.
"We're a work in progress. We have lots of work to do," Poile said. "We have a couple of other free agents who are unrestricted free agents after this season in Suter and Pekka Rinne, which we'll deal with at some point when all the players are back in town. I would still like to, when given the opportunity, to improve our team -- probably more up front than at any other position."
The Predators are now just above the salary cap floor at $48.7 million, according to capgeek.com. Poile mentioned on a couple of occasions during the teleconference that he would still like to add to the roster.
Nashville bought out veteran forward J-P Dumont and lost Steve Sullivan to free agency. The Predators also traded Matthew Lombardi to Toronto, but have Mike Fisher, acquired near the trade deadline last season, to continue to fill the role Lombardi was once expected to.
"I really like the position that we're in," Poile said. "I am well aware that we probably need a couple of forwards to take us to the level to truly compete for the Stanley Cup. Having said that, and not to be talking out both sides of my mouth, I am a big believer in the group of forwards that we have and some of these young guys have yet to reach their potential or maybe blossom into what I think they can.
"I would rather not put a dollar figure on it. I look at it more as opportunities we have to improve our team. I think a lot of the things we did this offseason were to put ourselves in this position -- to be able to sign some the guys like Shea and a couple of our other top guys and also to add on what I would call a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman when the need arises and when the opportunity presents itself. The owners are on board for that, so we will be taking advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves."