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Predators trying to keep focus on the ice, not pending sale of franchise @NHLdotcom

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Martin Gelinas was looking for a team that could take him back to the playoffs one more time.

He thinks he found what he wanted in the Nashville Predators, a team trying to focus on hockey despite a turbulent off-season that included two different sales, a threat of relocation and roster changes after a third straight loss in the first round of the playoffs.

"At my age, I just want to be in a team that had a chance to win and get in the playoffs, and who knows what can happen?" the 37-year-old winger said. "It looks like they're stable. Now it looks like they're going to stay in Nashville."

The drama started in May when owner Craig Leipold, frustrated by having lost $70 million since being awarded the franchise in June 1997, announced plans to sell to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie.

That fell through in June when Balsillie started taking season-ticket deposits in Hamilton after promising not to move the team. Leipold asked the NHL not to consider the deal, later blaming a rogue lawyer who had "no intention of honouring the process."

A local group stepped up and gave Leipold a US$10-million deposit in August on a $193 million offer. The partners had hoped to close the deal before the Predators opened the season Oct. 4 at home against the Colorado Avalanche.

That plan was put on hold while the group waited to work with Nashville's new mayor on changes to the lease that provides incentives to make more money off the arena. The group now hopes to complete the lease by mid-October with a deadline of Oct. 31 for final approval of the sale.

All that upheaval was off the ice. On the ice, the roster went through its own shakeup with management unable to spend freely.

Paul Kariya, their top scorer the past two seasons, left as a free agent for Central Division rival St. Louis. The Predators traded goaltender Tomas Vokoun to Florida and swapped the rights to top defenceman and captain Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell to Philadelphia.

They return four 20-goal scorers led by new captain Jason Arnott, who had 54 points in 68 games last season. Steve Sullivan, who ranked fourth with 60 points in 57 games, is expected back from disk surgery on his back in December.

They did sign some free agents such as Gelinas, who hasn't missed a game in each of his past two seasons and put up 44 points last season with Florida. They signed winger Jed Ortmeyer and Radek Bonk, who brings size at six-foot-three with the 23 points he had in Montreal last season.

Coach Barry Trotz isn't sure they can totally replace Kariya's production.

"That will come from guys stepping up and having better years than they have had in the past, or guys being put in different roles where they can score more," Trotz said.

One example is Bonk, who was used more defensively last season and is among a handful of players who could score more for the Predators, who scored a club record 272 goals last season and tied Colorado for most in the Western Conference.

The Predators also brought in veteran Greg de Vries to bolster a young group of defencemen led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.

"They're a very talented team, but maybe to take it that next step, they need a little more grit," de Vries said. "I definitely can add that element back in the D-zone."

Chris Mason takes over in net with Vokoun gone, providing an opportunity to goalie whose numbers were a little better than Vokoun's last season. He had three fewer wins than Vokoun with a record of 24-11-4, but he had a better save percentage (.925 to .920) and a better goals-against average (2.38 to 2.40).

Mason has the confidence of his teammates.

"He's going to step it up and he's going to be the No. 1, and he's going to play well for us," right wing Martin Erat said.

Matching last season's franchise record 110 points and finishing tied for third in the NHL may not be possible. The Predators open with four of their first five games at home, and they could have 10,000 season tickets sold by the opener. But then they hit the road for nine of 12, and 14 of their first 25.

"Our team has changed a little bit, but our expectations haven't," Trotz said. "We still feel like we can battle Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus, and hopefully make some noise in the playoffs."

Count Gelinas among those who likes what he sees around him, especially if they keep working hard.

"We'll have success. I don't know how many points we're going to get or where we're going to end up," he said. "But if we keep doing that, we'll be OK."

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