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Match point: Predators do the right thing in pricey Shea Weber showdown

The Nashville Predators had no choice, and they knew it. They had to match the massive offer sheet Shea Weber signed with the Philadelphia Flyers as a restricted free agent. They had to make a 14-year, $110 million commitment – one of the biggest in NHL history – to a player who seemed to be engineering his exit. They could not let him go for four first-round draft picks.

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The Predators couldn't afford to lose Shea Weber after Ryan Suter walked away in free agency. (Getty)

Because this was about more than Weber, their captain, the runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. This was about the credibility and identity of the franchise. General manager David Poile had said the Predators would match any offer sheet Weber received, and they have been fighting to prove Nashville, under new ownership, is no longer a small-market team just trying to survive.

As the Predators acknowledged in an extraordinary news release Tuesday – one that proclaimed this “the most important hockey transaction in franchise history” – not matching the offer sheet would have sent “a negative message to current Predators players and other NHL organizations, a message that the Predators would only go so far to protect [their] best players and be pushed around by teams with ‘deep pockets.’ ”

They wanted to send a strong message to their fans, sponsors and marketing partners. “It was absolutely essential that they understand and believe that we are doing everything possible to ice a Stanley Cup competing team each and every season,” the release said.

[Related: After Weber gamble fails, what do Flyers do now?]

Now it is absolutely essential that Weber understands and believes that, too.

It’s no secret Weber and the Predators have had a rocky business relationship. The Predators failed to sign Weber to a long-term deal last summer and took him to arbitration. They chose to go through the ugly process of arguing that their best player didn’t deserve the money he was seeking, and they ended up having to pay him a $7.5 million salary, anyway.

At the NHL Awards in June, Weber was diplomatic. But you could read between the lines:

“The summer we had last year, that was tough,” Weber said. “The negotiations didn't go I think as either side had planned, but that's the way it went. I think this year is more comfortable. I think that we understand and know what each other want.”

Weber was asked what he wanted. “To win,” he said. “Just like every player in the league wants, to win. A competitive team on the ice.”

Weber said he thought the Predators were competitive in 2011-12. They signed goaltender Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million extension. They acquired Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn before the trade deadline, and they took a chance on bringing Alexander Radulov back from the KHL – after Weber stuck up for him, by the way – only to have it blow up in their faces. The Predators advanced to the second round for the second straight year, farther than ever before, but they failed to take the next step, partly because Kostitsyn and Radulov sat out two games after breaking curfew.

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After bumpy negotiations a year ago, Weber and the Preds have made a long-term commitment. (Getty)

Still, Weber didn’t give the Predators full credit. He qualified his statements. He said they made “some” steps in the right direction. He said they showed “last year” they were committed. He said they were “saying” they would do what it takes to win.

He had seen them pinch pennies and lose player after player in the past, and it was as if he wouldn’t get fooled again – new ownership or no new ownership.

Then he failed to win the Norris, which went to Erik Karlsson. Now, Karlsson plays for the Ottawa Senators and was a controversial pick – a 21-year-old, offensive defenseman. But maybe Weber felt his Norris chances might be better in a bigger market.

Then he watched the Predators fail to re-sign his defense partner, Ryan Suter. Now, Suter and buddy Zach Parise signed matching 13-year, $98 million deals with the Minnesota Wild partly to be close to family. The Predators made a strong offer to Suter and even inquired about Parise. So this wasn’t about money. But Weber clearly was wary of taking another step backward.

In a sense, signing the offer sheet with the Flyers was a stroke of genius, even though Weber didn’t end up in Philly.

Weber was one year from unrestricted free agency, and the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. He had to maximize his value now, in case the new CBA limits the length of contracts, reduces the salary cap or adds restrictions that would have kept him from becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer altogether. (The new CBA could include a salary rollback that reduces this deal, too. But if it does, consider that whatever deal Weber would have signed in the future would have been negotiated in a deflated market.)

[Related: Preds ante up $110 million for franchise cornerstone]

The Flyers were the perfect foil – an aggressive, big-market, high-spending team, an offensive team that needed an anchor on the blue line because of Chris Pronger’s concussion problems. By signing that offer sheet, Weber issued a challenge to the Predators: If you’ve got the will and the wallet to win, prove it. Put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, I’ll join someone who will.

You don’t sign an offer sheet like that if you’re bluffing, especially when it includes $27 million in the first calendar year, making it difficult to match. Weber had to be ready to go. Had the Predators let him leave, they would have validated his concerns and he could have felt justified to bolt for the Flyers.

But he also had to be prepared for the Predators to match, and he had to know that if and when they did match, he wouldn’t be going anywhere, at least for a while. Of the seven players who have signed offer sheets since 2005, when the current CBA took effect, only one has switched teams. The Predators can’t trade Weber for a year under the current CBA. Having paid him so much up front, they would probably be silly to trade him even after a year. Weber had to be willing to go back to Nashville, pull on that sweater again, wear that ‘C’ and lead his team.

Weber rolled the dice. At least financially, he couldn’t lose. He had leverage, used it to its fullest extent and got the best deal he could have. He exercised his rights under the CBA, like the Preds did when they took him to arbitration. That’s business.

Hockey-wise, we’ll see. If Weber was right to be uncertain about the Predators, well, he just married himself to them and made it harder on them at the same time. But if the Predators are legit – if this wasn’t a one-time thing, if they can keep paying up for players, if they can keep contending for the Cup – then Weber gets what he says he wanted along. He wins. Big.

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