Once again this season, the rampant epidemic that concussions have become has claimed an NHL star. Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators suffered a concussion on Friday night on this hit from Derek Fistric:
I'm not going to waste time right now discussing head injuries or player safety, as there have already been numerous opportunities to do so, and there will undoubtedly be more. For now, a Predators team that is 8th in the Western Conference with a negative goal differential through 36 games must begin considering their options.
In Weber, the Predators lose their captain, their number one defenseman, and their leading scorer. Weber has 29 points this season and leads the team with a plus-14 rating. Only Weber, Ryan Suter, and Martin Erat have a plus rating.
With no timetable for a return, Preds general manager David Polle has some serious decisions to make. Weber signed a $7.5 million deal this past summer, and will be a free agent on July 1. Barring residual concussion symptoms, he certainly needs to be the Preds priority this off-season, and would presumably cost somewhere in the same range, if not more. After locking up Pekka Rinne through 2018 at a $7 million/year cap hit, there won't be much room to sign Suter to the upwards of $5 million that he will demand on the open market.
In fact, the Predators have eleven pending free agents this summer to tend to, including Colin Wilson and Sergei Kostitsyn. A team that averages under three goals per game likely can't afford to pay $21 million to its goaltender and top two defenseman.
Enter Ryan Ellis!
It's appropriate that Ellis enters the NHL conversation this time of year, as he was a major fixture of Canada's past three WJC medal teams, and captain the past two years. Ellis was taken by the Predators eleventh overall in the 2009 draft. Ellis has 17 points in 26 games thus far in his rookie season in the AHL.
Always known for his solid two-way game and ability to run the power play, Ellis will finally get his chance in Nashville, replacing Weber. Ellis won't bring the offense Weber brings each night immediately, but will get a chance to mature under Suter's guidance. What Ellis certainly won't bring is the size and physical presence that the 6'4", 232 pound Weber provides. Ellis' 5'10" frame has been one of his few criticisms and is likely what has kept him out of the NHL to this point.
The potential Ellis possesses is sky-high and could make life worlds easier for Nashville's management. He is signed through 2014 at just over $1.4 million a year. If he matures into a quality defenseman by the trading deadline, the Predators will be able to package Suter, whom they would presumably lose over the summer anyway, for scoring heading into the postseason, if they can hang around that long.
In addition, they'll be able to use the money they would have spent on Suter, presumably another $4 million, to go after more scoring in July.
Nashville is going to have an opportunity to trade one of their best players to fill their greatest need, without considerably weakening their defense. It is a golden opportunity to add the offensive punch that the franchise has never possessed.
But all this depends on the best defensive prospect in their system, one of the best in the NHL. If Ellis fails, Nashville will find themselves in a similar position to that of the Dallas Stars and Brad Richards last March, deciding whether to move Suter before he leaves on his own, or to keep him for a playoff run. This is a very important audition for Ellis, and for Suter, and no one is a praying harder for success than David Polle.