There is a great post by Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck (linked on the right) on his blog today asking the question "Can the Nashville Predators ever contend for the Stanley Cup?" The money line in his post is, "The key to competitive success in the NHL these days is to establish a strong core of proven veterans and develop young talent around it. Until they hit unrestricted free agency, many star players provide incredible bang for the buck and that's an area that the Nashville Predators are particularly well positioned to take advantage of."
One of the grumblings that I have heard over the years is that the Preds are not particularly active in free agency, even going so far last year as to not get involved at all in the free agent market, while teams such as Chicago and Detroit have been very active. A high profile signing can provide a shot of adrenaline to a fan base and can serve to boost ticket sales. In the salary cap era, high profile signings can also, depending on structure, serve to cripple a team's ability to maneuver under the the cap; develop, retain, and compensate younger talent; and plug holes where necessary. Teams with little room under the cap will have to shed players that fit well in their organization, and I would watch with interest some of the moves that are made for this reason after July 1st. While the final salary cap number has not been set for the coming season, it is expected to be in the $54-56MM range (it was $56.7MM last season). At the end of the season, the Preds had $11,446,923 of cap room. By contrast, Washington, Philadelphia, and Calgary had spent to the cap; and 9 teams had less than $1MM cap space available (Source: NHLSCAP).
Cap space is not the only consideration when a team is structuring a player contract, the length of the contract is also a major factor. Players looking to free agency are attempting maximize their compensation, and rightfully so; GM's are looking for that "piece" that puts a team over the top and into contention for a Cup. Longer term free agency contracts can potentially be an albatross around the neck of a GM, yet players and their agents are seeking a commitment of not only dollars, but time as well. As history has shown, this can be a delicate balancing act between developing the young players drafted into the organization and the acquisition of a free agent. In an organization such as the Predators, which have judiciously used free agency but tend toward the development of their draft picks, it is imperative that those draft picks be solid, that they develop to be competitive at the NHL level, and that they be productive. Our core group of veterans are mostly the draft picks from the early days of the franchise- homegrown talent that must continue to get better and produce at a higher level for this team to improve offensively and get back to the playoffs.
We have several unrestricted free agents, and the latest news that has been made public is that there has been little to no communication between the Preds and the players agents. We very well could lose a couple of defense men, and, if so, this is where you would see the younger talent have an opportunity to step in to those roles.We could lose some of our 3rd and 4th line forwards, and again, the model that has been employed by the Preds will come in to play as young forwards from Milwaukee will have a chance to stick with the big club. The UFA that is drawing the most attention at the moment is Steve Sullivan. I think there is unanimity in the Pred nation that we would all like to see him wearing a Preds sweater next season. Whether that happens will depend on the amount of money that Steve is looking for and the length of time that he is seeking on his contract. The dilemma that the Preds will face in signing Sully, or any free agent that may become available after July 1, is that there are two (potentially and probably) very large contract negotiations that will occur next season with Pekka Rinne and Dan Hamhuis. GM David Poile will have to balance an offer for Sully or any free agent with these contracts that will be upcoming at the end of next season, and given the philosophy and history of the Preds, it would not surprise me to see little to no activity with the upcoming free agency period- including Sully.
Unless there is a change in tactics, for the Preds to win the Stanley Cup they must draft well; develop the players in the system so that they are NHL calibre within a reasonable time; and retain the solid nucleus of productive and proven players. This approach can be healthier than the attempt to make a huge splash in free agency that can decimate a team for years to come.