With Calgary's Dion Phaneuf signing a 6-year, $39 million contract extension, speculation around Nashville naturally turns to Shea Weber, the young defenseman who is expected to fill a Phaneuf-like role on the Predators for years to come. Weber, like Phaneuf, is a 3rd-year player with good size, a booming shot from the point, and plays with an edge that thrills fans and intimidates opponents. Nashville GM David Poile has gone on record repeatedly saying that he will re-sign Weber and not allow him to leave as a Restricted Free Agent this summer, so what does the Phaneuf contract mean in terms of how much this will cost?
Clearly, there are a number of similarities between these two young stars. Take, for example, the Scouting Reports from TSN:
Assets: Hits everything that moves. Owns a big shot from the point and isn't shy about unleashing it. Displays all-around ability. Is the total package.
Flaws: Must continue to improve his defensive-zone coverage, which isn't terrible but could use more work. Can be a little too exhuberant at times.
Career potential: No. 1 defenseman.
Assets: Owns all-around potential. Has both the size and mean streak to keep skill players honest. Can unleash a big-time point shot and log a lot of ice time.
Flaws: Must curb his propensity to run around the defensive zone in search of the big hit. Needs to stay out of the penalty box in order to maximize potential.
Career potential: Top pairing defenseman.
The first there is Phaneuf's, the second Weber's. Both were taken in the 2003 draft, Phaneuf being the 7th selection in the first round, Weber taken in the second at #49. Last season, each of them scored 17 goals, and posted fairly similar statistics overall:
Phaneuf: 79 GP, 17 G, 33 A, +10, 98 PIM
Weber: 79 GP, 17 G, 23 A, +13, 60 PIM
So can Weber expect a contract similar to what Phaneuf just received? That wouldn't appear to be the case. Phaneuf has been consistently productive since first stepping into the league, scoring 20 goals his rookie season and making the All-Star team each of the last two years. In short, he's been performing at a high level right from the start. Weber, on the other hand, had a relatively mortal rookie season, and the first half of this year was basically a wash due to injury. Since returning to the lineup in late December he's played quite well, but needs to keep that up the rest of the way. Weber's book is still being written, whereas with Phaneuf, after three seasons of consistent performance you have a much clearer picture of what he can offer in the long term.
If not 6 years and $39 million, then, what would seem to make sense for Shea Weber? First off, I would expect him to go for a shorter-term contract, reasoning that the next few years should see greater production than seen so far, setting him up for an even larger contract down the road (and allowing some time for the rising tide of the overall NHL salary structure, which appears inevitable). A four-year contract would take him through to the point where he could become an Unrestricted Free Agent, for example, and might lead to the biggest payday in his next deal.
In terms of salary, what players make the most sense to compare Weber to? Let's look at a couple young defensemen and their second NHL contracts. Ryan Whitney in Pittsburgh, for example, is tied up for several years at $4 million per, but is more of a puck-moving force, picking up assists at twice the pace Weber does. What about Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa? He's averaging $3.75 million for the next three years, and has followed a similar career trajectory so far; learning the ropes his rookie year, then topping the 40-point mark in 2006-7 only to suffer injury troubles this season. Bieksa tends to take more penalties that either Weber or Whitney, but overall, I'd say these are relatively comparable players.
Perhaps, then, something like a 4-year, $15-16 million extension (hmm... where have we seen that before?) makes sense for both sides. For Weber, it allows him to cash in today while taking him right up to the point where he can be a 26 year-old unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012, in the perfect position to land a major deal if that's what he desires. For Poile, it solidies a major component on his roster for several seasons, and in return for not locking up any of Weber's UFA time, might save him a bit in yearly salary until then. It's important to note that with 28 games left in the regular season (and possibly playoffs as well), Weber still has an opportunity to prove he deserves more. But for now, it looks like Phaneuf-like money is out of his reach.