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Meltzer's Musings: "Gratton Trade" for Weber Makes Financial & Hockey Sense

July 23, 2012, 2:50 AM ET [1601 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Today's blog comes with a disclaimer: It is based 100 percent on my own speculation, and in no way meant to be construed as a prediction or news on how the Shea Weber offer sheet will ultimately play out.

I would not be too surprised if there are rumblings tomorrow and/or Tuesday that the Predators' ownership has green-lighted David Poile to match the offer sheet. Some will take it as gospel, others will be all the more convinced Nashville is bluffing. Either which way, I wouldn't be surprised if the situation goes well into Wednesday before the final outcome is determined.

Personally, I consider Weber enough of a difference-maker on the ice to advocate that the Flyers go the extra mile here to make sure Predators do not match the offer. I believe there's a deal to be made south of Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn being sent to Nashville, even if the scuttlebutt is the Predators are holding out for one or the other if they agree to a "Gratton trade" no-match arrangement.

When all is said and done, I think the Predators would be foolish to reject a two-step agreement structured something along these lines:

* Nashville agrees not to match the offer sheet and receives the Flyers' 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 first round picks.

* Nashville keeps the 2013 pick, but immediately returns the other three to Philadelphia to receive Jakub Voracek, Andrej Meszaros, and a choice of Marc-Andre Bourdon or Erik Gustafsson in exchange.

From a hockey standpoint, Nashville would be getting a still-developing forward who could step right into their top six. They'd be getting a 26-year-old defenseman who is a year removed from winning the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers' top defenseman. They'd get a young defenseman capable of competing right away for a starting spot on their blueline. Finally, they'd still get a first-round pick next summer out of it, too.

This is the sort of return that could be justified to the Nashville fan base as something that helps the team, even though some people would no doubt complain it isn't nearly enough. But this is only partially a hockey trade. We still have yet to get to the financial side of the equation (which can't be ignored in any deal, but especially one involving the payment of a $110 million contract).

From a Predators standpoint, the aforementioned deal would actually slightly help the club get closer to the salary cap floor than the team would matching the Weber offer sheet, while simultaneously saving ownership an astronomical amount of real-dollar money in the process.

Let's conservatively say that restricted free agent Voracek gets $3.25 million in his next contract. Then let's suppose that RFA Bourdon gets a modest raise to the same $900,000 that Gustafsson will make next. Then add that to Meszaros' $4.0 million cap hit and it combines to a total $8.15 million in "cap-floor spending" versus the $7.9 million cap hit that Weber will carry via the offer sheet.

Not only would Nashville be closer to the cap floor and have added multiple starting lineup pieces but it would be in exponentially better shape financially to have the capital to keep a competitive product on the ice for years to come. Because of all the front-loaded signing bonus money, this is a deal that would make a ton of fiscal sense for the Predators. That's especially true with Weber's agent has made a lot of noise (while the player himself has kept silent) that the player would rather play in Philly than Nashville.

Meanwhile, putting together this trade package would have a side benefit to Philly. Although the Flyers' real dollar spending on Weber would be astronomical, they are an organization more worried about the cap ceiling. The aforementioned trade would add Weber to the team and yet SAVE salary cap space from where Philly started before the offer sheet. The space that can be used toward adding a little more wing depth -- either this summer or before the trade deadline.

And, no, it would not be the Preds helping Philly to "steal" Weber. Poile wouldn't be doing Paul Holmgren a favor. He'd do what a good small-market GM does in a tough spot: he'd be helping his own team in the bigger financial picture while adding some good players in their early to mid 20s. The Flyers would also be helping themselves; not to allow Nashville to save face, but to get their man and shed a tad of cap space in the process.

By the way, with the crazy way hockey's cap economics work, the Predators are actually in better position than Philly to get Voracek signed to a long-term deal than the Flyers are; especially if there's a no-match on Weber. That's because the Preds need to overpay some players to get to the cap floor while Philly wants to stay under the cap ceiling without having to dip into Chris Pronger's LTIR allowance.

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I can understand why there are some folks who think Paul Holmgren should wait the Predators out and see if they can match the offer sheet. I understand it but I disagree with it.

From a practical standpoint, an offer sheet match is feasible only if members of the Nashville ownership group decide to overlook the franchise's economics and choose to pay Weber out of their personal wealth regardless of the monetary ROI. It's up to them.

By the way, because so much of the offer sheet is tied up in signing bonuses, Weber would collect the vast majority of the money even if there is no hockey played due to a lockout. So there is enormous fiscal risk here in an offer-sheet match.

I respect David Poile as an NHL general manager. I think he's been a very good one for many years. Nevertheless, either he's made some major miscalculations over the last two summers or else the ownership group is full of hot air about it's stated commitment to "spend what it takes to build a Stanley Cup champion." Perhaps it's a bit of both.

Why did the Predators go to arbitration with Weber last summer rather than working out a long-term deal that would have been a fraction of the price of what they're looking at now? They did it because Weber still had one RFA season left and they thought could still get him signed long-term.

Likewise, the Predators also had an opportunity in the summer of 2011 and early last season to get Ryan Suter signed to a long-term deal ahead of becoming a UFA. So why didn't they didn't do it then, if the management group was truly so committed not to losing any more key players over money?

As it turned out, it would have been more cost-efficient to extend Suter ahead of his All-Star season than to wait on him hitting the open market. Even if he had ultimately decided to stay put in July, the price the Preds paid would have been jacked up compared to getting it done earlier. Instead, the Predators gambled on Suter choosing to stay this July, and they lost that gamble.

Even before Suter left, the Predators further painted themselves into a corner by insisting they would match ANY offer sheet for Weber this summer. Unable to get a long-term deal done with the restricted free agent in the weeks that followed, they found themselves in an awful mess when Suter left and Weber decided to seek an offer sheet in greener pastures.

Meanwhile, a look at the Predators' upcoming roster decision reveals a huge budgetary mess looming if they do end up matching the Weber offer sheet. As of now, Nashville only has 18 contracted NHL-level players signed for 2012-13. Next summer, the Predators currently stand to have seven RFAs -- some of whom may be in line for significant raises -- and five UFAs.

The one player the Predators have tied a lot of money up in right now is Pekka Rinne. After being signed to an extension, he will be paid $49 million over the next seven years. Add a Weber offer sheet match and that's up to a $159 commitment to two players (with $129 million of it coming over the span of the next six seasons). So how exactly can management afford to put any talent around those two?

More pointedly, where apart from making sure Rinne was signed long term has this ownership spending commitment and roster decision-making been so praiseworthy: Trading for and re-signing role players Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill but then losing Suter and seeing Weber sign an offer sheet elsewhere? Bringing back Alexander Radulov, soon regretting it and then seeing him bolt back to the KHL? Facing a situation where up to 12 players could be free agents next year?

Sorry, but I'm not too impressed with this recent body of work by the GM and the folks who sign the paychecks. To me, Nashville's long-term roster picture has the makings of a real mess, even with Weber on board. But that's not the Flyers' concern.

The Flyers' concern is getting Weber to Philly. So why not go ahead and make a reasonable trade package to maximize the chance that it happens?

Listen, the goal here shouldn't be to force the Predators to match the offer sheet simply to "prove a point" about how they are committed to competing with the big boys. The goal should be to strengthen the Flyers' hockey team with a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman and a group around Weber and Claude Giroux that has a substantial window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup, whether immediately and/or in upcoming years.

Why risk a Nashville match -- whatever the financial arrangement on the other end to get to that point -- when there's a legitimate chance to make a deal both sides can justify? That arrangement would be one where Nashville would come away with decent immediate on-ice value and financial flexibility while Philly would come away with Weber and still have the cap space to plug a hole or two for next season.

I wouldn't exactly call it a win-win. It's more like a win (Philly) and cut-your-losses (Predators) scenario. But it was Nashville that left itself vulnerable here.

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