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Forsberg key for Predators' future, not present

by John Manasso

NASHVILLE -- When the Nashville Predators dealt right wing Martin Erat at the NHL's Trade Deadline on Wednesday without getting a roster player in return, it signified something of a sea change.

From Predators management and the coaching staff on down to the players, no one claimed to be giving up on trying to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- even minus a first-line player who was tied for the team lead in points.

"He's definitely a guy you're going to miss," captain Shea Weber said, "but we've got guys in here that are going to need to step up and I think that's the case all the time."

Nashville GM David Poile isn't trying to rebuild the Predators, but he did want to change the complexion of the team's long-term outlook by adding elite forward prospect Filip Forsberg. (Photo: Getty Images)

Nonetheless, simple math shows that scoring will be more difficult for the Predators. With injuries to top six forwards Colin Wilson, Gabriel Bourque and Mike Fisher, who gutted out a performance Thursday after missing the previous three games with an upper-body injury, coach Barry Trotz elected to put checking center Paul Gaustad in Erat's former place on the top line with Fisher and Kostitsyn.

Gaustad was tremendous on faceoffs, winning 57 percent, but an offensive force he is not. He has scored 73 goals in 516 NHL games. The Predators forwards failed to score Thursday and the team slipped further back in the playoff race, starting Friday two points behind the eighth-place St. Louis Blues but having played three more games. Trotz said Friday he most likely will not keep that line together.

In securing prospect Filip Forsberg, the 11th pick at the 2012 NHL Draft, from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Erat and minor-league center Michael Latta, Predators general manager David Poile appears to have reaped a good return. Alas, for a franchise that has advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, Forsberg will not help them this season.

Asked if the trade was an example of taking one step back to take two forward, Poile responded, "Yeah, that's a good way of putting it."

Last season, Nashville finished with the fifth most points in the League and was the busiest team at the trade deadline, signifying that they were a true contender for the Stanley Cup. However, they lost in the second round to the Phoenix Coyotes in five games and now, to a degree, find themselves retrenching.

Shea Weber
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 21
SOG: 100 | +/-: 3
For years, Nashville has boasted an embarrassment of riches on defense -- two-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber, all-stars Ryan Suter and Kimmo Timonen; Dan Hamhuis, and now second-year player Roman Josi is emerging as a top talent -- but Poile acknowledged the need for a dynamic, high-end skill forward which the Predators hope Forsberg, eventually, can be.

Last year, the Predators tried to add that dimension by bringing back wing Alex Radulov from the KHL. Radulov was a Predators' first-round draft pick in 2004 but broke his NHL contract to play in his native Russia. He returned to much fanfare last year but when he broke curfew during the playoffs in Phoenix, the team suspended him, effectively ending that experiment. He returned to the KHL this season.

Poile said he is not contemplating making wholesale changes but realizes some modifications are in order.

"Our forwards, as I said [Wednesday], we probably needed a little bit of a change -- a change or upgrade," he said. "And we've already started that process. Certainly, it was accentuated yesterday by getting Forsberg. I don't think anybody doesn't project him as a top-two-line player."

Nashville's core is intact: Two-time Vezina Trophy finalist goalie Pekka Rinne is in the first season of a seven-year deal and Weber, the captain, is in the first year of a 14-year contract.

The Predators sport a strong core, led by two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI)

"We've had some discussions about we're unbalanced in our drafting and that's probably accurate," Poile said. "We've taken more higher-end defenseman than forwards. But two things: We've also traded a whole bunch of first-round picks at the trading deadline the last few years to get to the playoffs and to compete and to win playoff rounds, and a little bit of, not to be defensive, but even on our forwards we've had a couple of unlucky situations too. We've had two high-end forwards that are no longer with us."

One of those forwards is Scott Hartnell, a 37-goal scorer last season with the Philadelphia Flyers who Nashville traded during a period of ownership uncertainty. Hartnell was set to become a free agent at the time and the Predators knew they could not match his price.

The other is Radulov.

"We lost Hartnell in free agency and Radulov -- you've got to fill in the blank," Poile said. "I don't know how we lost him, but you put those two guys in our lineup in whatever normal circumstances are … That's too bad."

In the past nine months, the Predators have had to navigate some turbulent times in terms of core player personnel issues. First, all-star defenseman Ryan Suter elected to depart via free agency last July by signing with the Minnesota Wild and is having a Norris Trophy-type of season.

Then Weber signed an offer sheet with Philadelphia amid public comments by his agent about how he wanted to leave Nashville. Now, a third player in the team's leadership group, Erat, asked to be traded.

The Predators deny that three represent some kind of united displeasure with the organization. They point to Rinne's contract extension in November 2011 but also to Weber's, as Weber knew full well the Predators had an opportunity to match the offer and keep him, as they eventually did.

"He wouldn't have signed it," Trotz said, "if he didn't want to be here."

Poile said, "I don't want to go where you're going. I think everybody in sports -- every team goes through different situations at different times. I think putting your team together is a lot about timing."

Martin Erat
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 21
SOG: 60 | +/-: -7
So now the Predators' timing is somewhat deferred. In addition to Forsberg, Poile said another prospect, Pontus Aberg, had a strong season in Sweden's second division, finishing with 12 goals and 28 assists in 52 games. A third, Brendan Leipsic, scored 49 goals, tops in the Western Hockey League during the regular season, as were his 120 points.

Also, with Erat's salary off the books, the Predators might be able to make a move in July's free-agent market, particularly if other teams choose to exercise their compliance buyouts, as spelled out in the new collective bargaining agreement.

Still, the Predators are not giving up. Six of their last 10 games are at home and Rinne is capable of stealing wins by himself.

"I don't think we're in a situation where we're asking anyone to do anything they're not capable of doing," Poile said. "Stranger things have happened. Are we favored? Absolutely not. We're in an underdog position."

It's a position the franchise is used to.

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