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If Predators aren’t Cup worthy, Shea Weber’s leaving Nashville

For the Nashville Predators, finding reasons to criticize Shea Weber(notes) as a star NHL defenseman during their arbitration hearing was a challenge.

A greater challenge? Trying to paint a happy face on getting their asses handed to them courtesy of Weber's $7.5 million arbitration award.

GM David Poile gave it his all during a joint conference call with Weber on Wednesday, framing his captain's windfall as a formal acknowledgement of his elite status as perhaps the best defenseman in the League.

Said Poile: "This is something that we've known, if you will, for a lot of years. But I think in the last couple of years, especially since, as we say, maybe his recognition and breakout came a year ago in the Olympics, when Canada won the gold medal and he played a significant role in winning the gold medal, but Shea's value and his recognition have been there in the last couple of years. First all-star team this year, second to Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) in the Norris voting, so today's award is certainly reflective of his value to the Predators and his worth in the National Hockey League. So congratulations to Shea."

Aaaaaaad scene.

In the first five and a half minutes of Poile's opening remarks, he used some variation of "contending for the Stanley Cup" six times, telegraphing what's at the heart of this stalemate between the Predators and Weber: Whether or not Nashville can contend for the Stanley Cup, rather than for a playoff spot. Whether they can be a champion instead of a spoiler. Whether they can surround Weber with talent rather than bleeding talent every offseason.

"It's not just about term and salary. It's about where this team is going, and if we're on the same path," said Poile.

Here's where things get a little complicated.

To contend for a Stanley Cup, a team needs to start with a solid nucleus of talented players and dressing room leaders. Weber fits both requirements, which is why Poile wants him to commit long-term. That he hasn't means he's hedging his bets on the Predators as a Stanley Cup contender, which obviously isn't the best sales pitch for a team still learning what it takes to become one.

To contend for a Stanley Cup, a team needs to augment that core of talent with a supporting cast worthy of a championship. Because Weber's salary was undefined for most of the summer, Poile had to clear payroll for him and was limited in how much he could add, saying he made "calculated" moves to put the Predators where they are now. Again, by deciding to go to arbitration, Weber dropped an anchor on the forward progress of this team from a transaction perspective this summer.

(Ed. Note: Let me clarify this point, as requested. There's a difference between "deciding" and "electing" to go to arbitration. The Predators "elected" for arbitration with Weber to shield him from an offer sheet. They didn't want a hearing. They wanted a long-term deal done. Weber "decided" to forgo any deal with the Preds, call their bluff and go to arbitration for a 1-year jackpot. Yes, the Predators were the ones that presented the option, but let's not pretend it was the team that wanted the process to play out like this.)

So, essentially, Weber wants to see the Predators as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender while he (a) keeps an eye at the exit for the next two years, potentially harming the Predators' ability to retain players like Ryan Suter(notes) and Pekka Rinne(notes); and (b) makes $7.5 million, a number that affects everything from the team's supporting cast to future earnings.

"We just couldn't agree on the term, the length or the structure. So we just didn't get it done," said Poile, who added that the sides discussed a 1-year deal that could have avoided arbitration. "We just didn't get it done."

Because of that, the vibe in Nashville is that Weber's done.

Jim Diamond of The Examiner writes:

The Predators could elect to try and trade him before then to in an effort to gain assets rather than losing Weber for nothing to unrestricted free agency. In other words, whether it is sooner or later, Weber will probably be saying sayonara to Smashville in less than two years.

From Inside Smashville:

Poile says the focus to date has been on Weber's situation and now looks forward to sitting down with Suter and Rinne, with the plan of keeping Nashville's core together.

Whether the three stars are willing to stay long term in Nashville remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. Weber wants to win. His chances to do so in Nashville decrease if Suter and Rinne are not locked up long term. It's Poile's move but now Suter and Rinne hold all the cards.

Adam Gretz from CBS Eye on Hockey:

You win with impact players, and the more of them you have, the better chance you have to win. That's obvious. Also because it's almost impossible to get fair value back in a trade for a player like Weber, especially when you're talking about a 25-year-old franchise defenseman that can score. (Or in the case of Suter, a steadier hand in the defensive end of the ice with a little less offense.)

If it should get to that point and the Predators decide to move in that direction, they would be better off being proactive and do it sooner rather than later in order to maximize the value coming back. Weber still has another year after this season before he's eligible for unrestricted free agency and he'll bring a larger return now than he will, say, at the trade deadline in March of 2013.

Listen to the full conference call with Weber and Poile here (via Preds On The Glass):

What's clear is that Poile and the Predators know what Weber's after.

Money? Sure. He and his agents didn't call the Preds on their arbitration filing for pocket change. It's $7.5 million next season, it'll be more than that the following season, and it'll be at least that for the first few years of any long-term deal.

But the most important desire is the desire to play for a championship. Weber expressed it. Poile heard it. If he's going to be a Predator in 2013-14, Nashville's going to have to be in the Cup conversation.

"It certainly keeps us focused with what we have to do," said Poile.

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