Year in review: No longing sellers, Predators take big step with richest franchise deal yet

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 11:44pm

A hotel room in Phoenix was not exactly a world away from Pekka Rinne’s hometown of Oulu, Finland.

It was far enough, though, that the Nashville Predators goalie had outdistanced his dreams. That was where, on Nov. 3, he signed the richest contract in franchise history, a seven-year, $49 million deal that begins with the 2012-13 season and gives the franchise that drafted him in the eighth round in 2004 his rights until he is 37 years old.

“I never even dreamed I would sign something like that, and it’s pretty unbelievable,” Rinne said. “A lot of things go through your mind. It’s a long commitment from the organization, but for me too.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing else you can ask for from your organization or your owners. They showed a tremendous amount of commitment and the trust they have. You can’t really ask any more than that.”

While the pact might have exceeded Rinne’s imagination, franchise owners and executives hoped that it created a new reality for them.

From the moment it entered the NHL in 1998-99 — at the forefront of the league’s latest expansion — Nashville has been viewed as a small-market pretender. Critics routinely have pointed to it as a leading example of a flawed approach to growing the game. More often than not, its best players have been traded or allowed to leave as free agents once they achieved a certain market value.

The deal with Rinne was meant to signal that all that has changed under a local ownership group with a retooled management structure.

Also, within the organization it was seen as an important first step given that defenseman Ryan Suter is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in 2012 and Shea Weber is possibly in line for the same in 2013. The hope was that a clear message was sent about the Predators’ ability and intention to keep those players — and others like them in the coming years — off the open market.

“I know that the other guys who are going into unrestricted free agency and restricted free agency see that as well,” veteran center Jerred Smithson said. “The owners are going out there and trying to get it done, trying to get those key components in place. I think that was a great start, getting him.”

Rinne’s deal also was — at the very least — a positive development after a disappointing summer. Highly public efforts to secure a lengthy deal with Weber, a restricted free agent following 2010-11, failed. Instead, the sides settled for a one-year, $7.5 million arbitrator’s award that opened the possibility for another such sequence of events this coming offseason.

“[Rinne’s] was the biggest contract in franchise history and shows they’re committed to signing some guys and it’s not just that low-market team anymore,” Weber said. “I’m a guy that I don’t like to deal with it during the season. It was stressful enough as it was last summer. I don’t want to bring that upon either side during the season.

“Once the year’s over we can address that stuff.”

One of the particulars of Weber’s deal was that he and the team could not resume contract talks until after Jan. 1. There have been, however, talks with Suter that seem to have been cordial but have not produced an agreement.

Rinne, on the other hand, saw no reason to wait.

The team’s leading net minder each of the past three seasons was a little-used goalie in the Finnish Elite League when Nashville drafted him. He stayed at home one more season and spent three years with Milwaukee before he finally broke into the NHL.

Hours after he signed the deal — and on his birthday — he made 35 saves in a shutout of the Phoenix Coyotes.

“I’m beyond happy for the guy,” Smithson said. “He’s worked so hard. He spent time in the American League. He’s paid his dues. He didn’t come up and have everything given to him right away. He worked for everything he got, and to see him get rewarded like that, I’m so happy for him.”

If the deal has the anticipated effect beyond guaranteeing a strong net presence for the next seven seasons, there will be no shortage of happy people connected to the Predators.

“One of the things it does is that Pekks is now an elite goaltender, and obviously his contract dictates that,” coach Barry Trotz said. “What it stated to me also was that our franchise has come full circle from being a franchise that was always in the bottom of the salary cap and when a player was starting to make too much you tended to turn him into an asset.

“That’s not the case anymore. We’re willing to spend big dollars on star players, and that’s not a problem.”





Top Predators headlines from 2012:

No deal for Shea: Franchise officials assured fans that no team could make an offer to restricted free agent Shea Weber when they filed for arbitration with their captain. Weber, though, rejected all
long-term offers from the Predators and landed a one-year, $7.5 million award from the arbitrator.

Playoff advance: For the first time in six tries the Predators got past the first round of the NHL playoffs. The key was a 4-3 overtime victory (Nashville’s first postseason overtime victory) in Game 5 at
Anaheim, which set up the clincher, a 4-2 victory at home in Game 6.

Gone fishin’: General manager David Poile made the most significant in-season trade since the acquisition of Steve Sullivan when he got Mike Fisher from Ottawa on Feb. 10. The fact that he was signed through 2012-13 meant he would be a fixture for more than just a couple months.

Fit the suit: Nashville already boasted the tallest pair of goalies in NHL history in 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne and 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback. Obviously enamored with size at that position, the franchise selected 6-foot-5 goalie Magnus Hellberg with its first pick (second round, 38th overall) in the 2011 draft.

Head games: The Predators were not immune to the issue of concussions. Their prized free agent acquisition, Matthew Lombardi, missed the final 80 games with a head injury and was traded during the offseason because of lingering uncertainty regarding his health. Defenseman Francis Bouillon missed the final 37 games of last season and the first seven of this one with a similar issue.

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