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Predators want to take next step into elite status

by Shawn P. Roarke
When it comes to the Nashville Predators, you know what you are going to get.

No matter the personnel, the Predators are going to be among the hardest-working and selfless teams in the NHL. That, as much as anything, has been their hallmark since they entered the League in 1998.

And despite some serious changes to the lineup over the summer, the Predators will once again be that working class team that remains a difficult draw on any night during the season.

This is the culture that GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have instituted from Day 1 with the club, and 228 wins in the past five years proves that it can pay huge dividends.

Last season resulted in a 47-29-6 record for 100 points, just the third triple-digit point performance in the organization's history. Plus, the 47 wins were not only the third-highest total in club history, but seven better that the 2008-09 total that helped put an end to Nashville's four-year run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Yet, all that regular-season success was only good for a seventh-place finish in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and a first-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that went on to claim the Stanley Cup.

Nashville gave the eventual champions a tough go, forcing the series to six games, including an OT loss and what was essentially a one-goal loss in Game 6. But that effort was not enough to get the club into the second round of the playoffs for the first time.

Not surprisingly, changes became necessary in the aftermath of another postseason disappointment. As a result, the 2010-2011 Nashville Predators will look far different than the team that closed out last season.

Poile made a couple of key moves in the wake of last season's disappointment that will dramatically redefine the Predators.

First, he let Jason Arnott go, trading the team's captain to the New Jersey Devils. The move was not a reflection of Arnott's diminishing production -- he was fourth on the team in points despite missing 19 games -- but rather a desire to let younger leadership bubble up and take over important roles on the team. Plus, with the luxury of moving youngster Colin Wilson back to center, the team felt it was deep enough up the middle to turn Arnott into an intriguing prospect (Matt Halischuk) and a second-round pick in 2011.

The trade of unrestricted free agent Dan Hamhuis was not as easy, but the Predators realized they were not going to be able to meet the player's contract demands. So they dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a proven commodity in Ryan Parent. Not only did the defenseman play for the Eastern Conference champions and apprentice under the tutelage of Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, but he is also intimately familiar with the organization after breaking in with the Predators as a first-round pick in 2005.

Hamhuis, meanwhile, hit the jackpot, in early July after spurning offers from the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, who obtained his rights from Philadelphia. He signed a long-term deal with the Vancouver Canucks.

The final big move executed in the early part of the offseason involved free agent goalie Dan Ellis.  Despite winning 15 games this past season and 49 during his three-year run with the Preds, Ellis was deemed excess to needs with the emergence of Pekka Rinne as the club's No. 1 goalie. So, he was packaged with versatile forward Dustin Boyd in a deal that landed the club enigmatic forward Sergei Kostitsyn from the Montreal Canadiens.

While ready to part ways with Arnott, Poile also understood his team could still use a proven top-two center. So when the opportunity to land free agent center Matt Lombardi presented itself, the Preds jumped at the chance, signing the speedy pivot to a three-year deal.

Lombardi, 28, is coming off a career season with the Phoenix Coyotes, a campaign that saw him score 19 goals and 53 points. Lombardi has been to the postseason in five of his six NHL seasons, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final with Calgary in 2004. He has also played for Trotz internationally as a member of Team Canada at the World Championships.

And, as we mentioned earlier, the Preds also know what they have in Parent, who was moved to Philadelphia a few years back when the Preds made a big play at the deadline to obtain Peter Forsberg. Now, the stay-at-home defender -- coming off a season marred by back woes -- returns to his first NHL outpost and should easily slip into the team's top-six rotation on the blue line.

Nashville added two also added two forwards that are less of a sure bet.

Kostitsyn, obtained in the Ellis trade, is a dynamic winger that ran into quite a few problems with the Canadiens. The flashy forward has yet to put together a full NHL season, but has shown flashes of being the goal-scoring machine he was in juniors, where he put up a 131-point season with London in 2006-07. If he can recapture a portion of that magic, the Preds will have hit a home run here.

Nashville is also hoping to get lucky in its reunification with Jonas Andersson, the club's second-round pick in 1999. Andersson played just five NHL games before returning to Europe, where he has played for the past six seasons. Last season, with Dynamo Minsk in the KHL, Andersson had 20 points in 30 games.

The Predators have the track record to suggest that they are on the cusp of becoming one of the elite teams in the NHL. To break on through to that exalted status, its young core will have to take the next step.

Yes, wily vets like Steve Sullivan (tied for the team lead in scoring with 51 points), J.P. Dumont and David Legwand, the last of the original Predators, are still around. But it is that next generation that will have to carry Nashville over the threshold.

That is why the naming of young defenseman Shea Weber as captain was so important this summer. Weber, just 24, is one of the best defensemen in the game today and will be the cornerstone to Nashville's continued improvement.

Fortunately, he has plenty of company.

On the blue line, Ryan Suter and Kevin Klein are each just 25. Cody Franson, who played 61 games last season is just 22.

Up front, Patric Hornqvist, who scored a team-best 30 goals, is a mere 23. Wilson (20) and Cal O'Reilly (23) are also slated to play far more prominent roles. The team could also see impacts from Blake Geoffrion, the team's top pick in 2006 and Halischuk, the 22-year old who played 20 NHL games for New Jersey last season.

And let's not forget that No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne, who had 32 wins last season, is just 27.

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