Another season means another distraction is surrounding the Nashville Predators as they begin their quest for a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.
Without one of their top players on the ice, the Predators look to open the season with a sixth consecutive victory over the St. Louis Blues on Friday night at the Sommet Center.
Last season, ownership uncertainty hung over the club until a group of predominantly local investors purchased the franchise and its arena in December from original owner Craig Leipold.
As the Predators embark on 2008-09, they do so without forward Alexander Radulov, who was suspended by the club indefinitely after signing a three-year contract to play with a Russian KHL team despite having a year left on his deal with Nashville. Though the International Ice Hockey Federation said Radulov, who had 26 goals and 58 points last season, was wrong to sign with the Russian club, the KHL has previously agreed to enter an arbitration case to decide his future.
"Until the court decision, he will play in Russia," KHL chairman Alexander Medvedev said last week.
Despite this situation, most of the core personnel returns from a team that was expected to be rebuilding, yet won 41 games, posted 91 points and lost to eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit in six games during the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont each had 72-point seasons to lead the team and were two of the four 20-plus goal scorers. Dumont led the Predators with a career-high 29 goals, while Martin Erat had a career season with 23.
Two-time 30-goal scorer Steve Sullivan returns after missing all last season with a back injury and Nashville hopes highly-touted rookie wingers Patric Hornqvist (41 goals in 102 Swedish Elite League games) and Ryan Jones (147 career points in four seasons at Miami, Ohio) can contribute from the start.
"Other teams have made changes by adding skill, but the one thing we can hang our hat on is we believe in our own people, we know how to develop and we play a team game," Nashville coach Barry Trotz told the NHL's official Web site. "We don't have to work on establishing our own identity."
While longtime Predators goaltender Chris Mason opens the season on the opposite bench as a backup to Manny Legace in St. Louis, Dan Ellis takes over the No. 1 role after a breakout 2007-08.
Ellis, who made one previous NHL start prior to last season, went 23-10-3 with a 2.34 goals-against average and is 2-0-0 with a 2.83 GAA versus St. Louis.
Nashville, which has never won a playoff series, won the final five meetings against St. Louis to go 5-2-1 versus the Blues in 2007-08.
St. Louis hasn't been to playoffs since 2003-04 and has already suffered a setback.
Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in the 2006 draft and the Blues' top scoring defenseman with 33 points last season, is likely out for the season after injurying his knee while riding a golf cart during a September outing.
"In our business you get a few curveballs," St. Louis team president John Davidson said. "This is a pretty good curveball.
"We still have our same goals. We're going to get up tomorrow and think about winning. You have to be able to adapt."
While veterans Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya will be counted to provide consistency, Brad Boyes, Lee Stempniak, David Backes and David Perron - all under 27 - will try to improve an offense that ranked near the bottom of the NHL with 205 goals in 2007-08.
"I can't wait for this season," Stempniak told the Blues' official Web site. "I think it's going to be very successful for our team."
Boyes is coming off a career-high 43 goals in first full season with St. Louis. He had six in eight games versus Nashville.
Legace hopes to build off a season where he went 27-25-8 with a 2.41 GAA and made his first All-Star appearance for a club that won 33 games. He is 11-7-6 with one tie and a 2.17 GAA against Nashville for his career.