It's been only a couple of years since the NHL was coordinating a relocation of the Nashville Predators, who were facing financial issues and a team that seemed to be losing most of its talent.
Who would've thought that - going into the 2011 offseason - they would be able to boast a top-3 head coach, defenseman, GM, and goalie? Who would've thought that they'd reach the conference semifinals for the first time in history, and give the Presidents' trophy boasting Vancouver Canucks all they could handle?
There's no doubt that the Preds gave 'Smashville', and the NHL, a reason to believe in the franchise. Now, management has some key decisions to make that could make or break the Predators' chances of reaching their ultimate goal: winning the Stanley Cup.
Resign Shea Weber
The 6'4", 235 lb defenseman has been the Predators' workhorse on both sides of the ice since he joined the team in 2005, and has averaged over 23 minutes of ice-time per game in the last three seasons. It's no doubt that if Shea Weber left Nashville this offseason, so would the Preds' chances of reaching greatness in 2011-12.
Weber, a Norris Trophy Finalist for the NHL's top defender, boasted 16 goals and 32 assists in the 2010-11 season.
His $4.5 million/year contract expires this year, and the Predators have exclusive rights to him until July 1st, when he can hear and accept offers from other teams. Both Weber and Preds' GM David Poile have stated that they want to get a contract signed before the July 1st deadline to keep him as the Predators' captain and the face of the franchise. It's expected that this deal will be to the tune of $7-8 million/year.
If both sides don't reach a deal and Weber follows the ever-so-popular 'leave Nashville for a bigger paycheck' trend, then the Predators will likely get several draft picks for compensation since Weber is a Restricted Free Agent. But it's no secret that pumping out a massive contract for Nashville's Weber is the ultimate goal for the offseason.
Let go of Steve Sullivan and/or J.P. Dumont
Possibly the biggest question mark in Nashville's offseason is Steve Sullivan. 'Sully' made $3.75 million in 2010-11, and is likely going to have to take a major pay-cut if he wants to stay a Predator.
Nashville can definitely get some use out of Sullivan on the third or fourth line, which is why they may sign him to a short-term contract. The 36 year old wants to finish his career in Nashville, but Sullivan has struggled with injuries in the last few years and has been a hole in the Preds' wallet recently.
Sullivan had only 22 points in 2010-11, his lowest point total since 1999, and had no points in the season-ending series against Vancouver. He brings experience to a team with many youngsters, but Poile will show him the door if he feels like there will be a repeat of last season for Sully.
J.P. Dumont went from being one of the Preds' best players to being an often healthy scratch in nearly two years. He's reaching the end of his $4 million/year contract and is the Preds' third highest paid player, but only scored 19 points this season.
The Preds need to test the market for Dumont to see if they can get rid of his contract in order to free up space to resign goalie Pekka Rinne and standout defenseman Ryan Suter in 2012.
Both Dumont and Sullivan have done wonders for the franchise, and they are both top-10 Preds of all-time in my opinion. But neither of them are the players that they used to be, and their money needs to be spent elsewhere to further the franchise.
Don't give Joel Ward a high-dollar contract
Predators right winger Joel Ward was arguably the MVP of the Predators' playoff run, with 13 points in 12 games. But the numbers are undeniable; his production has dropped both of the two seasons from his 2 year, $3 million deal.
There's no doubt that Ward would be a major contributor to the Preds next year, but if they have to ink out another large contract after the likely resigning of Weber, then they will struggle in keeping some key players such as Jerred Smithson, Nick Spaling, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Cal O'Reilly. Kostitsyn was the Predators' top goal scorer in 2010-11, but only makes a NHL-minimum salary of $550,000/year.
The Predators would love to keep Ward, and they know that he could breakout at any time to be a great player. But right now, he's not worth a major raise to the Preds, and they might not be able to match what another team wants to offer him.
Add a 'game-changing' free agent
Given the Predators make some releases and gain salary space, they could be in the market for a free agent this offseason.
The Preds might be restricted financially from getting a huge sign, but there should be many players within the Preds' range that they might bring in. The top-names from this year's free agents include Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils, and Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars, which will most likely prove to be too expensive.
The free agent pool is covered with young players including Devin Setoguchi of the San Jose Sharks, who is having an outstanding postseason. If the Predators went for him, they could bring in a player who can generate offense and goals (he had 22 this season, which is one shy of the Preds' top scorer). Setoguchi, or a player of his caliber, could give the Predators the bump they need to go from good to great.
Adding another top-line player to the roster will also sweeten the deal for Weber and give him more cause to stay with the Predators for the next few season.