Ryan Suter's future with the Nashville Predators was hotly debated this week, largely for two reasons. One, his Predators' team unexpectedly exited in the second round of the playoffs, far short of their goal of challenging for the 2012 Stanley Cup. Two, Suter and fellow American Zach Parise represent the cream of the unrestricted free agent crop; and if one or two fail to make it to July 1, when they can test the market, then it will be extremely slim pickings when the annual bidding free-for-all begins in less than two months time.
Suter was deliberately non-committal about his plans during exit interviews this week; and that's reasonable. What happens in the next seven weeks will ultimately determine, not only his future, but his family's future, likely for the rest of his playing career. Even if he was leaning one way or another, to make any sort of public pronouncement, while the disappointment of a failed playoff is still so fresh in his mind, makes little sense. Back when Suter was talking about his plans for the future, he cited playing for a contender as a priority, which stands to reason because he's going to get a pile of cash no matter who he plays for next.
Most seem to think he's moving on, because other destinations (such as the Detroit Red Wings) represent a greater hope for success. But do they really? There have been eight different Stanley Cup champions in the past eight years, and with the Boston Bruins exiting in the first round, there will be a ninth new champion this year unless the 2003 victors, the New Jersey Devils, can win it all again.
In a year when 20 out of 30 NHL teams collected 88 points or more, how do you realistically pick a team on the basis of which has the best chance to win a Stanley Cup? The fact is, since the lockout, it appears as if winning once makes it less likely, not more likely, than you'll win again, because of all the duress a team plays under during four gruelling, grinding playoff rounds - and its spillover effect onto their play the next season.
Even the Red Wings' estimable general manager Ken Holland made the point about parity, when issuing his post-season assessment of a Detroit team that fell to Nashville in the opening round: "You wake up every day, and you're nervous. It's such a fine, fine line between finishing fifth and finishing ninth."
Organizationally, the Red Wings have been the NHL's gold standard for two decades now, and have made 21 consecutive trips to the playoffs. But at the moment, they are just one more good team in a league that really boasts no great teams.
Conclusion: If Suter is picking his destination on the basis of who is getting closer to cracking the championship code, well, probably that would be Nashville, which wins 40 games every team, perennially makes the playoffs, is solid defensively (if he stays), and is hungrier than ever. Moreover, if the Preds do get a chastened Alexander Radulov back for a full season, maybe they finally get that necessary game-breaker in the lineup, someone who (they hope) is more fully vested in team goals than he was this spring, when he broke that curfew and created an unnecessary distraction in a five-game, second-round loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Incidentally, if hockey were judged on artistic merit and territorial play, that Predators-Coyotes series might still be in progress. Nashville was the better team overall in Games 1 and 5, but lost. Well, that happens. That's the way of the hockey world. Analyst Gary Galley said it on CBC early in the playoffs: "Whoever said hockey was fair." Nobody. And he could have added: The best team doesn't always win.
So back to Suter, who has been variously linked to the Red Wings and the Minnesota Wild in speculation (the latter because it is closer to his Madison, Wis., home. The Predators will offer him a market-value contract and likely the necessary term to get him signed as well. They were not afraid to give term to goaltender Pekke Rinne when they signed him to a seven-year, $49-million contract; and they didn't blink when Shea Weber received a $7.5-million arbitration award last summer, making him the highest-paid defenceman in the game.
Suter is represented by Neil Sheehy, who played professionally with his uncle Gary in Calgary; and generally does a good job of gauging his clients wishes. Not every agent gets that.
Some will sell their clients to the highest bidder and then convince the client that it is the right step in their careers. You wonder if Ilya Bryzgalov might have second thoughts after pursuing top dollar in Philadelphia rather than trying to make it work in Phoenix. Ville Leino didn't find the grass any greener in Buffalo, nor did Christian Ehrhoff.
Sometimes, the best landing place for a player is the place where you were all along, especially if it's been a good fit for the player and the team. As much as people want to drum up some intrigue because it is more fun to speculate about where he might go rather than where he might stay, logic and history tells you that all this Suter talk is just that - talk - and that when the dust settles and the Preds make him an offer, it'll be enough to get a deal done.
KINGS RIDING HIGH: For a team that hadn't won a playoff series since 2001 or made a Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1993, the Los Angeles Kings have a surprisingly high number of players with significant playoff experience. Justin Williams won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006; Dustin Penner with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007; and Colin Fraser with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. And then there are the players that made it the final and lost: Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene (Edmonton, 2006); plus Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and the injured Simon Gagne (Philadelphia, 2010). As for Willie Mitchell, he made it for the conference final with the Minnesota Wild in 2003. Edge in being-there, done-that to L.A. in the third round vs. the Phoenix Coyotes, who can pretty much just rely on the ageless Ray Whitney, plus former Ottawa Senator Antoine Vermette. Raffi Torres would count too, except that he's serving a 25-game suspension; he was with the Oilers in '06. Whitney, who was Williams's teammate in Carolina, celebrated his 40th birthday this past Tuesday, his teammates honouring him with a series of gag gifts that included a walker. Ouch.
THE SAYINGS OF CHAIRMAN DARRYL: One of the more curious back stories in the Kings-Coyotes series is how it matches Sutter against Jim Playfair, who was an assistant on his Calgary Flames' coaching staff in 2004 when they made it to the Stanley Cup final against the Tampa Bay Lightning and then was Sutter's designated heir when he stepped down as coach following the 2006 season. Playfair lasted just one season as an NHL head coach and is now an assistant on Dave Tippett's staff in Phoenix, joining them this year after spending the previous year with the AHL's Abbotsford Heat.
Both Sutter and Playfair think that their current teams share some characteristics with Calgary in 2004, a team that was a sixth seed but knocked off three division titlists to advance to the final. If the Kings get there this year, they'll need to do the same, after knocking off the Northwest champion Vancouver Canucks and the Central champions the St. Louis Blues in the first two rounds. According to Sutter, the Kings' Jonathan Quick reminds him a little of Miikka Kiprusoff.
"They play a lot the same way in their styles - same practice habits, both have real similar work ethics, both have the same demeanour in the locker room, but there are real similarities between these two guys."
The biggest difference? At centre.
"Our team in Calgary was more of a veteran role-player group," said Sutter. "You get (Anze) Kopitar, (Mike) Richards, (Jarret) Stoll and (Colin) Fraser on this team, and that's a pretty good group of centremen.
"You look at the role players and the centremen that did such an awesome job in '04, Stephane Yelle, Craig Conroy, Marcus Nilsson, guys like that. So there is a big difference in the calibre of player, I think."
QUOTABLE: Sutter was asked if he had confidence in Jonathan Bernier, should anything ever happen to Quick? "Absolutely," replied Sutter. "He's next in line. Then there is Ron Hextall and Billy Ranford. Both guys won Conn Smythes so he's got his work cut out for him."
Hextall, for those that don't know, is the team's assistant general manager, Ranford the Kings' goalie coach. Hextall won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in a losing cause for Philadelphia in 1987; Ranford on the Oilers' 1990 championship team.
DOAN TELLS ALL: The cameras caught Nashville Predators' coach Barry Trotz, pausing for a moment to talk to Coyotes' captain Shane Doan in the handshake line, after Phoenix eliminated them in five. What was said in that brief moment? It appeared as if Trotz told him to 'go win it all.'
"He just was encouraging me," said Doan. "He and I have stayed friends since we worked together at the worlds. I really admire the way he handles himself as a man and everything he does off the ice. He was saying it's too bad we had to meet in this round and it couldn't be further on. But he was happy for me individually, and said that he'd be cheering for me and he admired and respected the way I stuck with it here and hoped that we had success."