In a little more than a month, the NHL world will descend on Nashville, Tennessee, for the annual All-Star weekend.
It will be a time when the trade market will start coming into focus with the Feb. 29 trade deadline more clearly visible on the horizon.
When it comes to the Predators, the question is: Can this team win a Stanley Cup as it is currently constituted? Could it even reach a conference finals?
If Mike Fisher comes back healthy and productive, if depth forwards Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Cody Hodgson contribute more than they have thus far, and if Filip Forsberg rediscovers the star turn we saw early last season, the answer: maybe.
And "maybe" shouldn’t cut it for this franchise. Not with Pekka Rinne still in his prime as an elite netminder -- in spite of a statistically up-and-down season -- and as good a defense as there is top to bottom.
And there’s the rub: If the Predators are going to step forward and reward faithful fans with their first-ever deep playoff run, it feels more and more like it would take a bold, out-of-the-box move. Specifically, does general manager David Poile have to consider swallowing hard and trading captain Shea Weber?
A fanciful notion? Perhaps, but consider this: The Predators are in a unique situation with their most valuable asset. Because of the offer sheet Weber signed in 2012 with the Philadelphia Flyers, which the team subsequently matched, Weber does not have trade protection. Poile can do with Weber as he sees fit. Extend him, trade him or invite him to dinner. It is a singular dynamic in an NHL where no-trade and no-move clauses are handed out like candy on Halloween.
And what kind of bidding war might ensue for Weber’s services, given that he is under contract at a manageable $7.857 million annual cap hit for the next four seasons? Think of emerging teams that are desperate for defensive help and the kinds of young offensive stars the Predators might receive in return. What about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle for Weber? Or Leon Draisaitl instead of Eberle? Would you make either of those deals if you were Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli? Would Poile make that move given how difficult it has been for the team to develop its own scoring stars and how weak it is down the middle?
Weber is the face of this franchise and a unique defensive asset. No question. But equally undeniable is that Roman Josi is a Norris Trophy-caliber defender. And Seth Jones is a rising star with limited potential to grow on the Preds’ current defensive depth chart as he heads toward restricted free agency at the end of the season. Big Mattias Ekholm is an underrated talent who could blossom if the defensive lineup was altered.
What about the Columbus Blue Jackets' issues with young star center Ryan Johansen, who was a recent healthy scratch? What about Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are woefully thin on the back end and have high-end talent up front that isn’t producing? Would Evgeni Malkin ever consider a move to the Music City? Since we’re thinking outside the box, what about Sidney Crosby?
In short, the Predators are one of those rare teams that could trade a player such as Weber and actually get exponentially better if the right parts come back.
Maybe Poile would never in a million years trade his franchise defenseman. But we know Poile is smart and not afraid of a big move, and it does appear that’s what it will take to get this team to the ultimate goal.