Shea Weber - The Contender 

If Shea Weber played in Boston, Detroit or Minneapolis, little kids would war to claim the No. 6 jersey on their pee-wee teams, and street hockey games would feature the ubiquitous cry, "I get to be Shea Weber!"

And if he worked in Toronto? "He'd be the most marketable player in Canada," says Canada.com. "The way this guy plays, he'd have his own calendar, talk show and yearly parade. He's that good."

Fortunately, Weber plies his craft in Nashville. It's just that not many people here know it. In a town where hockey is forced to ride coach after football and basketball, Weber's virtually unknown outside the Predator faithful.

But around the NHL, he's now regarded as one of the most promising young defensemen in the world, the equivalent of the five-tool baseball player. He can shoot, pass, skate, hit and fight—all while playing with remarkable agility. Considering these skills only show up in one body every five to 10 years, you begin to understand why the rest of the league is gushing.

This year he made his first All-Star game, wowing the NHL with his performance in the skills competition, where he registered a 103-mph slapshot. It was the third-hardest recorded shot in league history. And it illustrates why Weber has become such a force for the Predators.

If you think hitting a baseball is difficult, imagine a 6-foot-4, 230-pound man bearing down from the blue line, unloading a hard rubber disk at NASCAR speed from as little as 20 feet away. He's ranked among the league leaders in goal scoring for defensemen all season, despite playing for a team that doesn't score often. Now, instead of plotting to stop the Preds' forwards, opponents have begun strategizing to shut down Weber.

But his real value is to the future of the franchise. Look at any team that's won the Stanley Cup, and you're bound to find an anchor defenseman on the roster. He's the guy who keeps the goalie from taking target practice, leads the up-ice rush, and mans the point on the power play. It's almost impossible to become a competitive team without him. And since defensemen tend not to reach their peak until their 30s, the 23-year-old Weber's upside has yet to be measured.

In a town like Nashville, where hockey has struggled behind the dominance of all things football, he could well be that face-of-the-franchise that finally pushes the Preds to the fore. Better still, you'll never hear him speaking of himself in the third person, complaining about ice time, or lamenting his contract in the midst of a playoff drive.

"Shea's not a guy who says a whole lot," notes Preds' spokesman Gerry Helper. "He's a very young, humble man. He really focuses on doing his job. He leads by example, and is very respectful of the rest of the leadership on this team."

Amen.

Photographed at Sommet Center by Eric England with assistance from Sinclair Kelly

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