The $56.3 Million Question: How To Keep The Big 3 Intact? (Part 1/2)

Current Chairman of the Nashville Predators Ownership Group, Tom Cigarran (left) has energized the fan base with the expectation of one day bringing the Stanley Cup to Music City. With the recent reality of paying big money to young superstars like Team Captain Shea Weber force other group members (such as majority investor and group founder David Freeman [right]) to considerably up the ante, beyond their traditionally conservative mid-cap payroll stance? (Photos: Cigarran, courtesy, Nashville Predators; Freeman: AP/Mark Humphries)


The Answer? Spend Some Damned Money.

Simple, right? It’s easy to solve the world’s problems when you’re spending someone else’s moolah — just ask the United States Congress. Neither is it too difficult to make that call from your armchair at home or even from bucket seats on the glass. However, it’s a far sight tougher to properly make the assumption that the ones who are actually putting up the cash can do so easily — or at all.

As fans, and moreover, as season ticket holders, we somehow feel that we have a say in how the ownership of our favorite sports teams spend their payroll dollars, particularly when it comes down to securing the team’s best and brightest players approaching free agency, in today’s often combative and  confrontational environment of management-versus-player/agent negotiations.

But do we really have that right?

The Nashville Predators knew it would be a challenge in dealing with the financial aspect of Captain Shea Weber’s rising star as one of the NHL’s very best players. What they perhaps didn’t see coming (and really, who did?) was the crazy escalation of previous value norms that the July 1st free agency frenzy would inflict upon Weber’s impending Restricted Free Agent negotiation.

With an arbitrator’s final award of $7.5 million for a single season, subsequent to Weber’s refusal to come to terms on a multi-year deal, the negotiation’s implication has suddenly changed the question from ‘how much,’ to simply, ‘how?’

Given their traditional stance on keeping the team payroll at the NHL Salary Cap’s midpoint, is has to be wondered whether or not it’s even reasonable to now anticipate that each of the Predators’ Big 3 will be eventually re-signed to long-term deals and that the team’s homegrown core will remain intact.

Nonetheless, while it certainly won’t be easy, I believe it will be done.

Roundtable Making the Rounds
Since first being broached as a topic for discussion by The Predatorial’s Kris Martel three and-a-half weeks ago, the question of ‘Which of the Nashville PredatorsBig 3 is the most expendable?’ seems to have gained even longer legs of late. The question of whose loss would be the least damaging, between Weber, his partner, defenseman Ryan Suter, and goaltender Pekka Rinne has repeatedly surfaced in and about the Predators blog community as more-or-less a roundtable discussion over the past few days.

Last Friday, Section 303.com’s Jeremy K. Gover and Codey Holland brought together a group of leading Preds bloggers to offer their audio takes on the subject in the weekly 303:30 Podcast.

Then on Monday, the ‘discuss amongst yourselves’ aspect of the question was posed again on Paul McCann’s HockeyBuzz.com blog (which always gets plenty of action in the comments section), as well as at Patten Fuqua’s PuckScene.com website.

For his part, Patten asked a number of Preds bloggers to give their thoughts on the matter, all of whom did so in typically well-measured arguments, ranging from “trade Shea now!” to “don’t let training camp to end without BOTH Suter and Rinne being signed to long-term deals.”

Meanwhile at HockeyBuzz, Paul turned things over to his readers, encouraging discussion among the bevy of active commenters of various s NHL fan orientations that visit his blog daily. They didn’t disappoint either, bringing lots of discussion and even more spice to the conversation.

As for me, McCann’s blog is where I chimed in, and I’ll basically expand upon what I said here in this post. I consider it to be an important point because, in my opinion, it’s a position that has gone without a adequate discussion by virtue of a general insistence on what I believe is an unfair assumption fostered mostly by folks who just don’t know. It’s the purported ‘fact’: that the Predators simply can’t afford to keep all of the Big 3 together, long-term; that Shea already has one foot out the door and that the team is going to come out of this scenario with long-term damage of one sort or another.

That’s my take-away from the culmination of the discussions I’ve read and heard among Preds bloggers, beat writers and fan’s comments.

But here’s the thing I want to know: since when did David Poile abdicate the Predators’ General Manager’s chair to Chicken Little?

The Weber arbitration award/one-year contract circumstance indeed appears to have taken the team by surprise; it has most certainly taken a good portion of wind out of the proverbial sails of the Predators fan base. But let’s look at a few points before rushing to final judgment; let’s hold off assuming that the worst that could happen, has happened, and that this is but the starting point of miseries for a historically-beleaguered hockey club.

Half-Right
I begin by directly addressing a commenter named Chris, who called me out on a recent post, referring to me as a member of “the Preds can do no wrong’ crowd.” His comment came last Tuesday, in the midst of the utter shock the entire Nashville fan base experienced when it realized that Weber’s agent had decided to call Poile’s ‘bluff’ and go through with scheduled salary arbitration proceedings — the one wrinkle in this arduous exercise that nobody ever believed would be necessary to endure.

Commenter Chris insisted that in voluntarily going through with the arbitration hearing, Weber was making clear his intent to reject any long-term deal offered by Poile. The commenter pronounced that the event of a one-year contract being awarded to Webs would usher in “a dark day in Preds history” and that “all of the momentum from last season is gone.”

I, in response to Chris, suggested patience, to see how it all played out before insisting that the sky was indeed falling. I obviously still think that it’s too early to ascertain either the effect or intention of Weber’s decision not to sign a long-term contract, but we certainly can agree on a few things.

By virtue of the mood of the fan base and close observers of the team, a dark day has indeed descended upon the franchise, and a goodly portion of the momentum from last year’s playoff run has most definitely flown right out the window.

So, Chris, you were right — in part.

However, I still disagree with the inference that it was Poile who screwed the pooch here, and/or that the relationship between Weber and the Preds is irreparably damaged. Nothing could be further from the truth in my opinion. Unless we completely dismiss Shea as both a liar and moneygrubber, then what he had to say in the media conference call on Wednesday afternoon, following the arbitration award announcement, certainly has to maintain some weight regarding his intentions going forward.

Weber wants to remain a Predator. He still clearly wishes to win a Stanley Cup with this team. However, whether or not I agree with the wisdom of the strong-armed tactics employed by he and his agent, he chose to exercise the only leverage he truly had as an option to make his all of his desires come to fruition. Weber wanted to get paid and he wanted the team’s offensive potential to be improved. He wanted what everyone else does: for the Preds to become true Cup contenders.

He wants the team to spend some damn money.

Nevertheless, every between-the-lines-reading commentator on that conference call, in interpretation of both Weber and Poile’s statements have agreed, the Preds were NOT trying to low-ball their captain, despite the measly$ 4.75 million final arbitration bid offered by Poile. That was clearly a tactic, not any sort of  indictment of Weber or his perceived worth.

That wasn’t the point.

Sticky Wicket
In addition to Weber’s ‘wait-and-see’ stance to make Poile accountable for improving the team’s offense, in my opinion, the major financial sticking point was over contract structure, which also, secondarily, involved term and overall amount.

We know that early on, the salary amount being negotiated prior to the arbitration hearing was within range on the Predators’ end, so it’s only logical to assume that the disagreement was regarding how the money was to be disbursed. There is no logical assumption to be made that could deny that Weber’s camp was looking for a heavily front-loaded deal, along the lines of New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk, Buffalo’s Christian Ehrhoff, and others. If both sides were indeed looking for a long-term agreement, that simply has to be the reason it couldn’t get done.

If that assumption is true then the rest is easy. When Poile made it clear that such a demand was untenable for the team’s resources, Weber’s agent dropped back and went with Plan B: get paid now, in the short term; establish a high benchmark for Shea’s salary and then reassess in 2013, when Weber finally becomes a UFA and holds all the cards. That’s business, my friends; it’s called leverage — and when you have it, you use it.

So assign it whatever name you choose; greed on Weber’s part; a lack of loyalty to the franchise who gave him his start, or you may (if you’re so jaded) believe as commenter Chris does (or did), that it’s all Poile’s fault for not giving Weber everything he wanted. Whatever; the situation is what it is for now.

The fact is, Weber is in the fold for this coming season at least — or less if you ascribe to the ‘trade Shea now’ school of thought. If another team does not end up springing some ridiculous offer sheet on the Captain next summer, then Weber will be around for the 2012-13 campaign as well, likely after dragging us all through yet another wonderful arbitration experience (if he believes that his current $7.5 mil isn’t enough), before becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of that season.

If things reach that point, admittedly, all bets are off as to where he’ll end up playing thereafter.

That being said, I return to the question I asked in an earlier post that I believe has to be addressed in earnest now. Why did Weber’s agents at Titan Management apparently believe that they could ask for — and receive — anything they wanted in this negotiation? And furthermore, why couldn’t they?

How could Head Coach Barry Trotz so flippantly assure the press that Nashville would match any offer sheet floated by a team wishing to pluck Weber from the Predators’ roster, and then when it came down to the negotiation, the deal couldn’t get done?

Did Trotz totally speak out of turn? Perhaps. Did that verbal misstep at least partially lead to the ensuing stalemate that resulted in the impasse played out in Weber’s arbitration nightmare? Even while on the surface it would appear that such an assumption by Weber’s camp would have been rather naive, I don’t see how Trotz’s comment couldn’t have at least colored their judgment.

Meet the Owners
Much has been said and written about the Nashville Predators ownership group’s staunch position regarding budget control. The press for years have assumed with good reason that the team simply can’t afford to operate with the big dogs of the NHL, which is the core of Nashville’s seeming inability to retain their unrestricted free agents. While much of that assumption is nothing more than urban legend (not to mention fodder for another post at another time), there is a legitimate shroud of mystery cloaking what I’ve dubbed, The Nashville Nine: the ownership group of Music City’s hockey team.

How much money do they have? How much can they really afford to spend? It’s a fair question.

The Nashville Predators ownership group is currently comprised of Chairman, Tom Cigarran, Herb Fritch, Joel and Holly Dobberpuhl, David Freeman, Chris Cigarran, DeWitt Thompson V, John Thompson and Warren Woo.

Make no mistake, these folks aren’t poor; however, they’re not rakin’ in the billions, either. But who are they, then? What we do know is that they are whom they have always purported to be: investors in the City of Nashville.

They’re cavalry that came to the Predators’ rescue in 2007, after Craig Leipold abruptly put the team up for sale and soon thereafter, it appeared nearly certain that an out-of-town buyer would swoop in and whisk it away to another city.

This group of owners are, with the exception of Woo, local business people who double as the guardians to the dream of NHL hockey in Music City.

Without them, we would be without a team. And if you think that’s not the worst thing imaginable to a hockey fan, just ask a former Atlanta Thrashers season ticket holder how it feels. Nashville hockey fans should be deeply indebted to these folks for stepping up when they did. Otherwise we might well be rooting from afar this season, for a hockey club up in Hamilton, Ontario.

A detailed breakdown of the Preds ownership is not publicly accessible, except in the sketchiest of bits and pieces; nor is the net worth of each individual member readily available. And while that’s not surprising, it does make it kinda tough to get much of a true read on what truly makes the group tick, financially.

What else we know about this group can be gleaned from the early statements of then-chairman, Freeman, who back in 2007 described the group’s chief reason for coming together as the desire to spare Nashville the embarrassing black eye of losing a major sports franchise. Freeman indicated that the group wasn’t so concerned about making a profit in this venture as it was in keeping the team in town and merely breaking even on their investment.

Of course we also know that since taking over the helm of Predators Holdings LLC from the comparatively low-key Freeman in February of 2010, current Chairman, Thomas Cigarran has pumped up the owners’ rhetoric considerably.

In recent years, Cigarran has not been bashful about announcing what he considers to be the ownership group’s aspiration for the Predators’ success. He’s not satisfied with the team merely being here; Cigarran has touted an expectation of greatness; an expectation of seeing the Stanley Cup being paraded down Broadway.

Accordingly, such has become the increasing expectation among PredsNation. The team’s consecutive strong performances in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 regular seasons, particularly coupled with last season’s breakthrough advance to the second round of the playoffs, has given ever-increasing credence to Cigarran’s bold pronouncement of one year ago this summer.

But it doesn’t take a cynic to know that saying it’ll happen is one thing, but placing the team in such a position to make it happen is quite another.

Nashville’s recent success and sudden media-darling status, acquired in the wake of its most recent playoff performance versus the Vancouver Canucks last season has placed its emerging home-grown stars in the spotlight as never before. The Predators are no longer flying under the radar of expectation and media scrutiny. They have come to the next level in their development.

Likewise, with the advent of Weber’s groundbreaking arbitration award, they’ve advanced to the next level in payroll compensation as well. The Predators’ ownership group indeed finds itself in unfamiliar waters.

No longer can the team expect to get by with offering bargain basement contracts. They’re swimming with the big fishes now as one of the NHL’s top-contending teams; their players should expect commensurate consideration when addressing their upcoming salaries.

— Well, at least that’s what their agents are obviously thinking.

The question is a big one — about $56.3 million smackeroos worth. That’s the mid-level to which the 2011-12 NHL salary cap has risen; it’s the sweet spot in which Nashville has typically sought to spend, allowing them to be competitive, yet still qualify for vital revenue sharing money. This year, being at the mid-cap range isn’t just a ‘good idea’ — it’s likely the minimum salary figure the Nashville will need to address to in order to get all of the Big 3 signed.

Last year the mid-cap number was a little more than $50 million; the year before it was just under $49 million. As the salary cap — and its midpoint — continue to rise annually, the question now has to be: how far is up, and how high is the ownership group willing to go?

How much can they spend?

For this season at least, Weber is moored safely at the dock; however, it’s clear that the way in which the remainder of el grande tres’ are handled may well determine whether he stays put or drifts away at the end of this season or next.

 

Next: The Die is Cast

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5 Responses to “The $56.3 Million Question: How To Keep The Big 3 Intact? (Part 1/2)”

  1. Chris August 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    Aj it is really nice to read something about the big 3 without reading “how the Preds can’t afford them” or “where will Shea Weber end up after Nashville” or “which one should Nashville trade”. You did a great job of breaking down the ownership and what they need to do to sign the big 3. Like you, I believe that they will sign all 3 or least sign 2 and try to go out and get a top forward but as you said that will not be easy to do.

    My question is are the owners making more money through the team or arena than is being reported? I heard once they signed on Fifth Third Bank and a couple of the other late corporate signings that the corporate sponsorship was almost 3 times more than Leipold ever had here. Now granted I do not know how much that was or truly how much they have now but I do know for sure that they are more corporate signs in the arena now than I have seen since my first Pred days of the 2002-2003 season. Also another thing that I really wanted to ask during the SOTU but held my tongue. Cigarran, Henry and Cogen all said that the arena is in the top 10 in the country and top 20 in the world for attendance, which would equal more money coming into the venue now than it has ever had. Now please correct me if I am wrong but I remember back in the horrible Summer of 07 in an interview with Freeman he stated that the new owners wanted more control of the arena and they wanted a certain percentage of each event held in the arena. He said they felt if they could make money from those events it could help even out the money they would lose on the hockey team or something to that regard. Now I am not sure how much that percentage is but I would think the owners are making a decent amount of money if the arena attendance is that high in the Nation/World. Neither one of these have been mentioned this off-season and if you throw in 6 home playoff games I would think that the owners would had the best year yet in profits.

    As always really enjoyed your blog.

    PS One last thing. I am not the Chris that is mentioned in the above blog…….

    • AJ in Nashville August 12, 2011 at 7:03 am #

      *LOL* Yes, I know there are a number of Chris’s who’ve commented here, and I appreciate your kind words!

      You do bring up an excellent point that is indeed germane to the discussion. It’s clear that Cogen and Henry have done a far better job of managing the overall affairs of the Arena than Ed Lang & co. did in the previous regime. The new lease helps as well because there is language that provides added financial incentives for the team to get as many events scheduled there as possible.

      The magic question is how much does it all come to and how much of that money can actually be applied to player salaries. Like you, I would expect that this factor had something to do with Trotz’s statement.

      But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

      The overriding idea I was trying to communicate is that winning changes everything, as does time. I believe the new profile the team has earned will more or less force the hand of ownership to find a way to keep that momentum going — I beklieve they’re smart enough to see that.

      This ownership and management team is a good one. I look for good things to continue for the Preds.

      Thanks again for commenting, Chris!

  2. Michael August 17, 2011 at 12:12 am #

    Good read. Honestly, I don’t think we’re in near of a bad spot as its being made out to be. And the only part I really disagreed with you on is this being ‘a dark day in franchise history’. I think all this negativity is a bunch of bogus.

    The only way Weber doesn’t sign a long term deal is if something goes terribly, terribly wrong from this point, making him literally ache to get out of Nashville. Which isn’t going to happen. In fact, I think Weber is the least likely to move, because of his RFA status. I think we’ll sign him to a heavy deal worth around 8 million a year, which he’s worth every penny. If Poile doesn’t think so and refuses to pay, then hey, we’re probably losing all three. (Also, not going to happen)

    Pekka.. I think will sign an extension at some point this season. It will be very quiet outside the Nashville media, but it will probably happen. He’s entering his prime and Suter is a lot more expendable in my opinion, just because we have Weber and quite a few blue line prospects coming up.

    The problem that nobody is talking about is Ryan Suter. Weber? Not a problem, get real. Rinne? Quiet, but we got him in the bag I think. Suter, I’m afraid, is probably hitting the road next summer. The July 1st frenzy this year was insane, and the talent pool.. well.. it sucked. Ryan Suter is more valuable then Brad Richards, no? Of course he is. If Suter played his cards right, he could become the highest paid blue liner in the entire league. If he wants it, its his. His UFA status has the potential to burn us pretty bad. Some sources are even suggesting that he could make 10 million a year… Yeah, unless he just really, reaaaally wants to stay in Nashville for like 7 mil/yr.. he’ll be making bank in a larger market next year. Easy.

    Those are my concerns.. thoughts?

    • AJ in Nashville August 17, 2011 at 11:17 am #

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Michael!

      The reason I agreed with the previous commenter on the ‘dark day’ comment, was not because I’m defeatist in any way. I am always a ‘glass is half-full’ kinda guy and I am ridiculously loyal to my teams — this one in particular, because there are no idiots in the front office OR behind the bench. Poile is one of the smartest men in the game. The problem is, he ALWAYS colors inside the lines because he’s responsible. Name ANY other GM in the league who have had not one, but TWO tenures with teams as long as Poile has with Washington and Nashville. You don’t stick with organizations that long by making stupid, ‘splash’ moves that fly in the face of your owner’s finances or aren’t borne of expertise on the player’s talent and ability to work within your system. Poile knows hockey, knows how to work within a budget, and does both incredibly well.

      All that to say, that the darkness of the Weber circumstance is what we now see within the fan base; having gone from elation to despair, to dread, to fearing the unknown. Let’s face it, there’s a cloud hanging over our heads that won’t be lifted until the other shoe drops — whatever size and style that shoe turns out to be.

      I believe you are exactly right about Suter, and I don’t know if you read my post, Odd man Out? but I discussed that very aspect regarding Suter’s intentions or lack there of to stay with the team.

      I believe it’s going to take a Herculean effort and a bit of concession on the part of all the Big 3 for them to stay, and that might well be accomplished this season with the success of young guys like Geoffrion, Hornqvist, and Bergfors having breakout seasons (or in the case of Horny, returning to his breakout form of 2 seasons ago). If Shea could be convinced that the team will REALLY be in the hunt for the next few years, I think he’ll stay. If it’s business as usual, with the Preds being merely competitive and ‘the little engine that could,’ well, I’m not optimistic.

      I agree that Pekka is the most loyal of the three and is more likely to put down roots here for the long term. It remains to be seen if Suter’s priority is on winning or just getting paid. I believe Shea wants both, but not one more than the other.

      Thanks again for the thought-provoking comment. Hell, I could easily turn this comment into another post! ;)

      Take care and thanks again for reading!

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