LAS VEGAS -- The anxiety is building around the Nashville Predators as the calendar draws closer to July 1.
Will Ryan Suter return to Music City or sign a lucrative contract elsewhere? How will Suter's decision affect Predators captain Shea Weber?
No other team in the NHL is facing two bigger questions because no other team in the NHL has two cornerstone defensemen like Suter and Weber, who each need a new contract. The immediate future of the Predators, a team that appears to be building toward a sustained run as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, comes down to the decision made by Suter and the subsequent decision that will be made by Weber.
Ryan Suter could leave the Predators as a free agent, and defense partner Shea Weber might follow. But the team remains confident it can sign both stars. (Photo: Getty Images)
Nobody, not even Predators general manager David Poile, can predict what will happen.
"Right now, as we get closer, it appears [Suter] is going to take a peek on July 1," Poile said in advance of the 2012 NHL Awards at the Wynn Las Vegas, where he attending as a finalist for the GM of the Year Award. "I'm certainly hoping -- based on our conversations, everything I know about Ryan, his personality, his comfort level, everything we have to offer in Nashville both on and off the ice -- we still are the right place for him.
"I understand that he's earned the right to do this (test free agency). I wish he was signed, but if I get it done on July 1 or something like that, that would be fine also."
Suter's decision will come first because he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Weber is a restricted free agent, so Nashville has some leverage with him.
However, if Suter signs elsewhere it is possible Weber signs only another one-year deal with the Predators so he can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2013. The Predators used their one-time option to take Weber to team-elected salary arbitration last summer and he ended up with a one-year contract worth $7.5 million.
Weber has until July 5 to decide if he wants to take the Predators to player-elected arbitration this summer. If he remains unsigned by July 1, a likely scenario considering Suter's situation, Weber is open to fielding -- and perhaps signing -- an offer sheet from another club.
"We went through a lot last year, it was a tough summer," Weber said. "I think we've learned from that and both sides understand where we have to go and what we need to do from here."
If Suter re-signs with Nashville, it is conceivable Weber also talks to the Predators about a lucrative long-term contract so the two can remain together, perhaps for the rest of their careers.
The Predators insist they have the money to sign both.
"I just kind of have to wait and see what happens there and the rest will shake out," Weber, a finalist for the Norris Trophy, told NHL.com.
"Right now, as we get closer, it appears [Suter] is going to take a peek on July 1. I'm certainly hoping -- based on our conversations, everything I know about Ryan, his personality, his comfort level, everything we have to offer in Nashville both on and off the ice -- we still are the right place for him." -- Preds' GM David Poile on his hopes of retaining defenseman Ryan Suter
Weber, though, will not give a sales pitch to Suter, his close friend and teammate since 2005. They were selected in the 2003 NHL Draft, with Suter taken with the No. 7 pick and Weber with the No. 49 pick.
"It's a personal decision for Ryan and his family and they're going to decide what is best for him," Weber said. "Obviously I'd love to play with the guy for the rest of my career, but if that's not the way it goes, it doesn't work out that way, then that's the way it goes."
Weber said he does not know what Suter is thinking right now. Suter is spending the offseason on his farm in Wisconsin.
"People are curious and a lot of people know we've come up together and we know each other very well," Weber said. "They're trying to get any inside scoop that they can and, believe me, that's the last thing that I've got. It's just about being a good friend to him and his family, and however it shakes out that's the way it goes."
Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne certainly is interested in what will happen this summer. Rinne signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension last November, obviously with the hope he will have Suter and Weber in front of him for the length of the deal.
Rinne is nervous about what the future might hold for Nashville's best defensemen, but he knows he can do nothing but keep the faith as he waits.
"I don't want to already think about 'What if they leave?'" Rinne said. "It's part of the game and we'll know a lot more after the beginning of July."
Rinne, a Vezina Trophy finalist, is confident Nashville will be able to retain both players.
"There will be a lot of attention on Suter and a lot of teams interested, but I still believe Nashville still has the advantage with all the facts that we are still getting better, we have a really good core group of guys," Rinne said. "I can't talk about what he thinks, but I know he likes it there, the city and the organization. I still believe I have a really good chance to play with him in the future."