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Lombardi, Franson expected to step into breach

by Dan Rosen
The offseason in Nashville brought about some shrewd moves by GM David Poile and the continued hope that a few of Predators' top prospects develop into true NHL players in the coming season. Yup, it's like Groundhog Day in the Music City.

Every year it seems Poile and coach Barry Trotz find a way to create a playoff contender out of a limited budget. Rising stars emerge and veterans fill roles while goaltending serves as the backbone for the Predators' success.

The formula works. Why change it?

This time, Poile traded away team captain Jason Arnott in a deal that netted him $4.5 million in cap space and a younger, up-and-coming forward in Matt Halischuk, as well as a 2011 second-round pick. Poile used that cap room to sign Matthew Lombardi as Arnott's replacement. He also signed restricted free-agent defenseman Ryan Parent.

Lombardi, who will earn $3.5 million over the next three years, is seven years younger than Arnott. He's faster, strong defensively, an asset on the penalty kill and the power play, and he's coming off the best season of his career.

Parent, a 2005 Predators draft pick, was re-acquired when the Predators traded the rights to Dan Hamhuis to Philadelphia. Hamhuis signed with Vancouver, so essentially Poile got Parent for nothing from the Flyers.

Subtracting Arnott also gave Poile and Trotz the opportunity to hand the captaincy to Shea Weber, already the team's best player and leader.

Poile waited until Aug. 24 to make the move that made most sense for the Predators. That's when he signed restricted free agent Patric Hornqvist to a three-year, $9.25 million extension, a well-deserved raise for the young Swede who scored 30 goals last season. Hamhuis' departure likely gave Poile the room in the budget to sign Hornqvist, who five years ago was pick the 230th and final pick in the 2005 Entry Draft.

"This is a great story," Poile told The Tennessean. "The last guy taken in the draft -- it sounds like the movie 'Rudy' or something. It's a super story. Kudos to our scouting staff, particularly (European scout) Lucas Bergman in Sweden. … He saw his passion and goal-scoring ability. Wow, it's paid off big-time for the Predators."

With the roster set, it'll be up to Trotz to twirl his magic wand again so the Predators return to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons. History suggests he'll make it work.

By no stretch did the Predators blow the doors off the competition last season, as they finished 18th in goals (217) and 24th on the power play (16.4 percent). But their top three scorers -- Hornqvist, Steve Sullivan and Martin Erat -- all return. Lombardi, David Legwand and J-P Dumont could round out the top six.

It's not the most intimidating top six in the Central Division (Detroit, Chicago figure to be deeper), but it fits into Trotz's coaching style to have consistent, two-way threats at each position. If they all can pick up their production a bit, the Predators won't have to rely so much on their defense and goaltending.

Hornqvist broke out with 30 goals, 21 assists and a plus-18 rating in 80 games last season. Sullivan, who seems fully recovered from a back injury that cost him 1 1/2 seasons, tied with Hornqvist for the team lead with 51 points thanks to his team-high 34 assists. Erat had 49 points on 21 goals and 28 assists. He's consistently around those numbers every season.

Lombardi had a career-best 53 points with Phoenix last season. Dumont is averaging 62 points per season since arriving in Nashville in 2006, though he'll need to pick up his production from last season, when he had only 45 points in 74 games. Legwand also is looking to rebound after a down season (38 points).

Colin Wilson is a wild card in all of this. As a rookie making the jump from college last season, the 20-year-old Wilson had an inconsistent season. He finished with just 15 points in 35 games, but he played in all six first-round playoff games against Chicago and did OK.

Poile and Trotz are looking for Wilson to show a vast improvement in Year 2.

Marcel Goc, Jordin Tootoo, Joel Ward and Jerred Smithson all fit in Nashville's bottom six, but we already know about them. It'll be interesting to see what the Predators get out of Sergei Kostitsyn.

The controversial yet talented Belarusian winger never made it in Montreal despite a promising start. Like Wilson, Kostitsyn is a wild card because if he can turn around his fledgling NHL career and become the scorer he was penciled in to be when he first got into the League, Trotz may have to find some ice for him in the top six.

Halischuk, Blake Geoffrion, Andreas Thuresson, Nick Spaling, Cal O'Reilly and veterans Wade Belak and Jamie Lundmark will have to win their jobs or playing time during the preseason. Geoffrion would be the first Tennessee-born and -trained player to suit up for the Predators.

This is a blue-line group with some major pieces, including Weber and Ryan Suter, but also a big hole created by the departure of Hamhuis. If no one steps up to fill Hamhuis' skates, the Predators could be in trouble, but they feel they have the pieces in place to make the transition appear seamless.

Kevin Klein, Francis Bouillon, Cody Franson and Alexander Sulzer appear to be the top candidates for second-pair work. Klein and Bouillon played the most of that group last season, but the 23-year-old Franson had 21 points and a plus-15 rating in 61 games as a rookie last season. If Franson continues his upward trend, it's possible he takes Hamhuis' role.

Aaron Johnson was signed to a two-way contract and the veteran is trying to earn a roster spot.

Weber may be the most feared defenseman in the NHL when you combine his raw power, blazing slap shot, skillful ability with the puck and defensive prowess. He had 43 points in 78 games last season, and he nearly killed a few people with his slap shot.

A key to his success was staying out of the penalty box. Weber had only 36 penalty minutes, down from 80 the season before. His ability to stay on the ice as much as possible for the Predators is a key because he is the linchpin in just about everything they do from an offensive and defensive standpoint.

Suter has been one of the most reliable defenseman in the NHL since his rookie season five years ago. Suter has played in 203 consecutive games and has missed only 17 in his career. He had 37 points, including 33 assists, last season, when he led the Preds in ice time per game at 23:58.

On the prospect level, Jonathon Blum, Roman Josi, Teemu Laakso and perhaps even Ryan Ellis pose threats to some of these veterans. Ellis, 19, is the only one of that quartet that isn't eligible to play in the AHL, so he'll either make the team or go back to junior.

Pekka Rinne is the established No. 1, and unless something crazy happens he won't be challenged this season. Poile believes so much in Rinne that he didn't try to sign an experienced backup this summer when Dan Ellis bolted via free agency.

In his second full season, the Finnish goalie played a career-best 58 games, and posted 32 wins, seven shutouts, a 2.53 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. Of the goalies Chicago faced en route to the Stanley Cup Final -- a list that includes Roberto Luongo and Evgeni Nabokov -- Rinne gave the eventual champs the most trouble.

Rinne is 27 and figures to just be entering his prime years. Unless Poile acquires a veteran backup who still is hunting for work, it's possible Rinne will be asked to play 65 or more games because as it stands now, there is no one else in the Predators system that has played an NHL game.

Chet Pickard and Jeremy Smith are top prospects battling to be the No. 2, while Mark Dekanich and Anders Lindback supposedly are in the mix as well. One could make the NHL roster while two go to Milwaukee as another ends up as the starter for Cincinnati in the ECHL.

Then again, it's possible Poile makes another shrewd move and picks up a veteran and they all head to the minors.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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