Jordin Tootoo does not envision a day when he will not be playing for the Nashville Predators.
That’s primarily because the 28-year-old forward remains focused on his ongoing recovery, roughly 13 months after he voluntarily entered the NHL’s substance abuse and behavioral program. One of the tenets of any such program is to live in the present and not to dwell on what might be.
Yet as the Predators return from the All-Star break and face their final 32 games of the regular season, it is impossible for most anyone else to look past the fact that Tootoo is in the final year of his current contract.
Since the end of last season, virtually any discussion about Predators’ business affairs has centered on efforts to sign goalie Pekka Rinne and defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to long-term deals.
However, Tootoo, long a fan favorite, is one of four significant members of the current roster scheduled for unrestricted free agency at the end of the current campaign. Suter, defenseman Francis Bouillon and tough guy forward Brian McGratten are the others.
Little, if anything, has been said about the franchise’s approach in regard to Tootoo, and all indications are that little has been done.
“I am playing one day at a time here, and I’ll let the business side of things take care of itself,” Tootoo said. “I’m here to play hockey at the end of the day. This is what I love to do. I love the city of Nashville, and I want to be a part of something special.
“I can’t worry about what other situations are with other players. I just have to play good hockey and things will look out for themselves.”
Rinne agreed to the richest deal in franchise history (seven years, $49 million beginning in 2012-13) in early November. Weber will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and — at worst — figures to get a slight raise from the one-year $7.5 million deal under which he’s currently playing after he rejected any long-term offers over the summer. Talks have taken place with Suter’s representatives, but nothing has been agreed upon.
The reluctance of Suter and Weber to sign on the dotted line seemingly has brought all other dealings to a halt, which is understandable given the significant piece of the salary cap they potentially could command.
Nashville general manager David Poile was on vacation during the All-Star break and unavailable to comment late last week.
As it is, Nashville already has approximately $33.5 million committed to player salaries for next season, according to capgeek.com. New deals for Weber and Suter could increase that figure by nearly 50 percent. Not only that, but forwards Sergei Kostitsyn, Colin Wilson and backup goalie Anders Lindback are due to be restricted free agents and figure to combine for more than $5 million in salary next season.
All of that raises the question of where Tootoo fits in, particularly at a time when it universally is agreed that he is playing the best hockey of his career and figures to have value for any franchise.
“It is what it is right now,” Tootoo said. “I just want to play hockey. At the end of the day it’s about producing and being a well-rounded professional. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
It was two years ago this week that Tootoo agreed to his current contract. Rather than enter the offseason as a restricted free agent, he signed a two-year pact that paid him $1.15 million last season and $1.35 million for this one.
He matched his career-high with 18 points in 2010-11 despite the fact that he did not play between Dec. 26 and Feb. 19 while he underwent treatment through the substance abuse program. He entered voluntarily on Dec. 27 because, as he said later, it was “time for me to look after myself personally,” and nearly half his points came in the 24 appearances after he rejoined the team.
Already this season, he has racked up 21 points, including a career-high 15 assists. All the while, he has maintained his physical presence. The franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes has fought three times through the first 50 games, which has him on pace for his highest total in four years.
The combination of his best statistical season and his personal success in regard to his sobriety is likely to drive his dollar value higher than it has been. Plus, his reputation is one of a player who no one wants to play against but many would love to play with, which means there ought to be multiple teams interested in him if he becomes available as a free agent.
All of that, though, is too far into the future to concern Tootoo right now.
“Mentally and physically I feel tremendous,” he said. “It’s a long season. So I’m going to look after my body, first and foremost, and good things will come out of it.”
That seems certain to include a new contract. But will it be from the Predators?