PHILADELPHIA — Shea Weber can thank the Flyers for one of the richest and longest contracts in the NHL.
But the Nashville Predators will pick up the tab.
The small-market Predators made the bold move Tuesday to match the staggering offer sheet made by a deep-pocketed Flyers organization to keep the two-time Norris Trophy-nominated defenseman in the franchise.
Nashville dug deep into the pocketbook and decided to pay Weber the $110 million over 14 years offered by the Flyers. Weber, 26, is the Predators’ captain and played on a $7.5 million arbitrator’s award last season. He had 19 goals and 49 points along the way.
Nashville already lost free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter to Minnesota this summer, and losing Weber would have been an unexpected blow to a defense-first team that had 104 points last season and has captured hearts around the region the past two years with postseason runs.
The Flyers, eliminated in the second round the past two seasons after a run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010, were looking for someone to fill the void left by defenseman Chris Pronger’s absence. Instead, Philadelphia is left scrambling.
And Weber, for a week at least, hoped he would land in Philadelphia. Now, he will likely end his career in Nashville.
“In tendering an offer sheet to Shea Weber, we were trying to add a top defenseman entering the prime of his career,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “With Nashville matching our offer, we wish Shea and the Predators all the best.”
On behalf of Predators chairman Tom Cigarran, GM David Poile and CEO Jeff Cogen, the team released a statement that called the Weber signing, “the most important hockey transaction in franchise history.” Poile said from the start the Predators would match — and they did, even at the steep price.
Weber is owned $27 million over the next year and $68 million in bonus money over the first six years of the deal under the current CBA.
“It was a flagship moment for the Predator organization,” Weber agent Jarrett Bousquet said by phone.
Weber is a three-time All-Star who helped Canada win gold in the 2010 Olympics, and is also is the mainstay of the Predators’ defensive-minded approach. He is coming off a season in which he turned in a career-best plus-21 rating. Weber was sixth among NHL defensemen in scoring, as well, last year. He also had a career-high 22 points on the power play, and led all NHL defensemen with 10 power-play goals.
Weber averaged 29 minutes, 9 seconds of ice time last season, second on the team to his former partner, Suter, who signed a 13-year, $98 million deal with Minnesota on July 4.
The Predators said they wanted to send a message to their fans that they remain committed to fielding a Stanley Cup contender.
“It was absolutely essential that they understand and believe that we are doing everything possible to ice a Stanley Cup competing team each and every season,” the Predators said in a release.
It’s easily the biggest contract in Nashville history.
“I think what Nashville showed today is they’re willing to step up with some of the more solid ownership groups,” Bousquet said. “They said, ‘You know what? We are a destination for free agents. We’re a place that guys are going to want to come and we’re solid ownership. We’re going to keep our stars.’ When that happened, Shea was pretty excited they were willing to step up like that and give him that commitment.”
The Predators said they had the money to keep Weber and Suter after signing goalie Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million deal last November. But Poile couldn’t keep Suter in town despite team officials thinking they had a good chance to keep their top draft pick in 2003. The Wild not only snagged Suter, but also agreed with forward Zach Parise, Suter’s good friend who left New Jersey for a similar deal to Suter’s, a month after leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals.
This could be the last deal of its kind in the NHL. The owners reportedly want to limit contracts to five years in the latest round of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement
“We wanted to take advantage of this CBA because we’re not sure what the economic landscape will look like in the next CBA,” Bousquet said. “With this, he got some security with him and his family. He’s in a place that’s familiar to him and ownership’s proven that they’re solid and ready to step up.”
Nashville took Weber, the team’s fourth pick in the second round in that same 2003 draft, to arbitration a year ago and couldn’t take the restricted free agent there again this summer.
The Predators said the decision to match the offer came down to three factors.
n Was Weber the individual that this franchise wanted to lead our team, a team that would compete for the Stanley Cup every year, for the next 14 years?
n Would matching the offer sheet be in the best long-term interest of the team and organization?
n Would a decision not to match the offer sheet send a negative message to current Predators players and other NHL organizations, a message that the Predators would only go so far to protect its best players and be pushed around by teams with “deep pockets?”
“The answer to each of the above questions is clearly “yes,'” the team said.
The Flyers are left to figure out what’s next.