To appreciate how much respect Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz has for Shea Weber(notes) – his captain, leading scorer and all-star defenseman – go back to the first half of last season. Trotz was giving injury updates on Weber … to a division rival.
Mike Babcock was coaching not only the Detroit Red Wings, but Team Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Weber was secretly playing on a broken foot while Babcock and Steve Yzerman, then a Wings vice-president and Team Canada’s executive director, were considering candidates for their Olympic roster.
Weber had blocked a shot, suffering a bone bruise and fractured instep – a bit ironic considering, as Trotz said, Weber’s own hundred-mile-an-hour howitzer “breaks legs.” He couldn’t put much weight on the foot. It took the oomph out of his shot. When he turned a certain way, he would stumble. But he wouldn’t give much info, even to his own people.
Trotz gave an example of a conversation:
“Are you hurt?”
“Our trainer said you have a broken foot.”
Added Trotz: “That’s all you get from him. ‘I’m fine.’ When he doesn’t want you to know something or doesn’t care for you to know, he goes, ‘I’m fine. I’m good.’ ”
That silence spoke volumes to Trotz, so he spoke up for Weber. After the Predators would play the Wings, Trotz would text Babcock and tell him just enough to make it clear that wasn’t the real Shea Weber out there, that wasn’t the Shea Weber who would play in the Olympics not far from his British Columbia hometown of Sicamous. Trotz wouldn’t say it was a broken foot, or a foot injury, or even a lower-body injury.
“I would just say, ‘Webs didn’t have his best game. Just to let you know, he’s playing injured,’ ” Trotz said. “That’s all I would say.”
Really, though? An injury update of any kind? To a division rival?
“Well, I’m Canadian,” laughed Trotz, a native of Winnipeg. “I know how good he is. I felt that he should be one of the guys to represent our country for the next 12 years.”
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Well, Trotz is American, too. He’s a Nashville guy through and through, the only coach the Predators have ever known since they took their first NHL faceoff in 1998. He knows how good Weber is on and off the ice, and wants him to represent the community for the foreseeable future.
Not that it was why Trotz texted Babcock, but helping Weber make Canada’s team should only help Weber want to stay with Nashville’s team. He is scheduled to be a restricted free agent after this season and is eligible to be unrestricted after next season.
“Got to get him signed,” Trotz said.
This is an important period in Predators history, and Weber is the most important piece to the puzzle.
The Predators are trying to take the next step. They’re trying to go from a playoff team to a Stanley Cup contender. They’re trying to go from a team that drafts well and develops well, only to part with good players, to one that keeps its core intact.
Weber is perhaps the finest example of what Trotz calls “Nashville cloth,” guys like defenseman Ryan Suter(notes) and goaltender Pekka Rinne(notes), who joined the Predators on draft day and rose through the organization. The Predators picked Weber 49th overall in 2003. He spent some time with their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. He became an elite defenseman with the Predators, and last summer, he was named captain.
“In our market, he has tremendous impact, because he’s grown up a Nashville Predator,” Trotz said. “He understands that we’re still growing hockey, and he’s one of the reasons why we are. … He signs the autographs. He’s selling the game.”
Asked if he was open to a long-term deal, Weber said: “I’m open to whatever. I love it here. I love the guys. I love the organization.” But Weber, 25, whose salary is $4.5 million this season, said he and the Predators had agreed a while ago to wait until the offseason to negotiate. He doesn’t want to be distracted from the business at hand.
First, the Predators have to make the playoffs. They’re one point behind the fourth-place Dallas Stars, but in the tightly packed, ultra-competitive Western Conference, they’re also only one point ahead of the seventh-place San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames, only two points ahead of the ninth-place Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings.
Every game – like Tuesday night’s against the Sharks – looms large. The difference between having home ice in the first round and missing the playoffs altogether is miniscule.
“We can’t sit there and look at the standings every day,” Weber said, with the standings just a few feet away, written on an eraser board in the dressing room. “I think it’ll drive you insane.”
But the Predators feel if they make the playoffs, they have the potential to go deep. They took a 2-1 series lead on the Chicago Blackhawks last year – and had a chance to head home with a 3-2 series lead. But they blew it, allowing a shorthanded goal with seconds left in regulation and the winner in overtime. They went on to lose in the first round for the fifth time in five playoff appearances – and watch the ’Hawks hoist the Cup.
“Obviously that’s something you can’t really put behind you,” Weber said. “I’d classify that as one of the worst losses I think any of us have been a part of, so I think we’ve got to learn from that. If we’re ever in that situation again, obviously we know what to do.”
Weber needs to show the way, and the Predators need to follow.
Early in the season, the newly appointed captain gathered the team for a dinner at a Chicago restaurant – not only the players, but the coaches, trainers, everybody. If they were going to win, they were going to have to do it together, right?
“When he’s doing all the things that it takes to win and someone else isn’t, when he does say something, he could probably burn a hole through you if he wanted to,” Trotz said. “I always think of Mark Messier as a great leader. Well, when you think of Shea Weber, I see a great leader, and he’s going to be a great leader for a long time.”
Remember the conversation Trotz had with Weber about his broken foot? Trotz gave an example of one Weber might have with a teammate:
“Are you hurt or are you injured?”
“You’re playing tonight, so don’t whine about it. Let’s go.”
For a while, Weber might have tried to do too much, might have tried to carry the team, might have tried to make the difference himself. But opponents are too smart to let him beat them. They try not to let him bomb away from the point. So the Predators have had to adjust their power play, and Weber has had to learn to delegate.
Weber has 35 points, which means he’s on pace for 51 points, two off the career high he set in 2008-09. But his assists are up and his goals are down. He has 24 assists, on pace for a career-high 35. He has 11 goals, on pace for 16, same as he scored last season and seven off the career high he set in ’08-09.
“I think Shea’s really comfortable in his own skin as captain of this team,” Trotz said. “He’s comfortable with himself and the way he’s playing. He’s had a much better year this year than he had last year, and last year he was really up and down. He was injured last year. A lot of people didn’t know, and he played injured for a good portion of the season.
“Obviously with it being an Olympic year, that was a big motivator for him.”
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The broken foot started to feel better about the time the Canadian Olympic roster was announced Dec. 30, 2009, and when the Games came, everyone saw the real Weber.
Type three words into the search bar on YouTube: Weber, Germany, net. You won’t find someone grilling bratwurst on the Internet. What pops up instead is a video of Weber firing a point shot against Germany at the Olympics.
The puck screams past the right arm of the goaltender and smashes off the end boards. But Weber didn’t miss the net. Behind the Team Canada bench, Babcock points up to the scoreboard screen, and replays confirm the inconceivable: Weber had shot the puck through the net – ripped it right through the twine.
When Weber went home to teach at a hockey school last summer in Sicamous, he might have been more famous for that blast than for producing six points in seven games, or for making the all-tournament team, or even for winning the gold medal.
“That’s what the kids know you for, as the guy who put the puck through the net,” Weber said. “That’s pretty cool that I’m even getting recognized. But for something like that, it’s even cooler.”
One thing would be even cooler than that: a breakthrough moment for the Predators, Weber returning to Sicamous with the Stanley Cup.