In the fantasy hockey world, the Nashville Predators are the real thing.
None other than NHL.com, the National Hockey League’s website, rates Nashville defenseman Shea Weber and goalie Pekka Rinne the No. 1 fantasy players at their respective positions for the 2011-12 season, which opens this week. Nashville begins play with a pair of road games Friday and Saturday and plays at home for the first time on Oct. 13.
The fantasy rankings are not so much an assessment of overall ability. Instead, they are a mix of talent and value to a team, and those two players — along with Weber’s defense partner, Ryan Suter — arguably are as valuable as anyone else anywhere in the game at this time.
The question will be raised after the season, though: What are they worth?
That is the reality that awaits Nashville and its fan base.
None of those three are signed beyond the current season. Rinne and Suter are headed for unrestricted free agency. Weber is set for a second straight summer as a restricted free agent, but this time he is free to accept an offer sheet from another team.
It is no secret that management wants to sign all of them to new, long-term contracts, yet given the team’s uneven financial history and its limited ability (relative to many others) to generate additional revenue, the opportunity to get them all back beyond this season might be … well, a fantasy.
“I think it’s something we’re going to deal with every day of the year … and we just have to deal with it the best we can,” general manager David Poile said. “I’ve talked to all the players. I’ve talked to all their agents. We’re going to do the best we can to get the contracts done at some point.
“It’s equally important right now to not have it be a distraction.”
One of the most widely held theories in the sport is that a team is best built from the back to the front — defense first, offense second.
Beginning with the 2003 draft, the Predators remained focused in that regard for an extended period of time. That year, they selected Suter in the first round (seventh overall) and got Weber in the second. The following year they picked up Rinne with an eighth-round selection.
None of the three is older than 28. If age were the only factor, therefore, there would be no end in sight for their partnership.
There are, of course, other issues. Most professional athletes look at unrestricted free agency as a career milestone, not to mention a chance to sign a once-in-a-lifetime contract. To forgo that by re-signing with their current team — in the minds of many — would be a failure to take full advantage of the system as it exists.
Weber already is one of the best defensemen in the league, as evidenced by his runner-up finish (he lost to Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom by nine votes) for the 2011 Norris Trophy and his status as a first-team NHL All-Star.
However, he played his best hockey last season when Suter was his partner. In the 12 games Suter missed (a career-high), Weber’s production dipped noticeably.
Rinne, like Weber, was an awards finalist last season. He lost out to Boston’s Tim Thomas for the Vezina Trophy.
“I think it just builds your confidence and your own expectations. They rise a little bit to a higher level,” Rinne said. “You have your goals and dreams. Just to see those guys who are on the top and try to get there and try to see what they do and why they are the best players in the league, that was great.”
That sort of production and recognition also increases a player’s value.
There are seven goalies scheduled to make $6 million or more this season, topped by Ilya Bryzgalov, who will earn $10 million in the first year of a new deal with Philadelphia. Rinne will earn $4 million, the highest salary of his career to date.
An independent arbitrator awarded Weber a one-year, $7.5 million package this offseason. Three others will make more, led by Christian Ehrhoff, who will make $10 million in the first year of a 10-year pact with Buffalo.
“I know it’s a cliché, but you still have to perform on the ice,” Rinne said. “It doesn’t matter how last year went. Now it’s a new season. My only goal is to play well on the ice. After that, the contract is going to take care of itself. That’s for sure.”
From the beginning, the Predators have been viewed as a team short on talent but long on heart that more often than not exceeds the expectations of most.
In 2011-12, they have bona fide top-end talent, players any real-life general manager probably would like to have on his team.
“It doesn’t really matter what the opposition thinks of you, it’s how good you think you’re going to be,” Poile said. “… We’re happy with where we are. We think everybody on our team this year can improve and get better. They’ve not reached their peak, if you will.”
At the same time, Suter, Weber and Rinne also have not maximized their earning potential. Once they do, it’s possible the only way they’ll be on the same team is if it’s in fantasy hockey.