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OFFSEASON ACTIVITY

Arrivals: Ben Eaves, C, Espoo Blues (Finland); Ben Guite, RW, Colorado; Peter Olvecky, LW, Minnesota.

Departures: Radek Bonk, C, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Russia); Vernon Fiddler, C, Phoenix; Ville Koistinen, D, Florida; Drew MacIntyre, G, Atlanta; Scott Nichol, C, San Jose; Jed Ortmeyer, RW, San Jose; Antti Pihlstrom, LW, Farjestads BK Karlstad (Sweden); Greg Zanon, D, Minnesota.

Remaining Free Agents: Greg de Vries, Denis Platonov, Tim Ramholt.

STATE OF THE UNION

Where are the Nashville Predators headed? After 10 seasons of play, the question is legitimate and needs to be answered.

Nashville is not exactly a pushover, but neither is it a team anyone fears playing. The Sommet Center is not a hostile environment for visiting teams, the Predators have yet to win a playoff series, and their string of four straight seasons in the postseason was snapped in 2008-09.

Is that the genesis for a shakeup? Is the team really headed in the right direction? Rather than run off a string of wholesale changes, Nashville management feels it has the personnel internally to get back on track.

The line of Jason Arnott centering J.P. Dumont and Steve Sullivan is expected to carry the team, and each is capable of 70 points when all goes well. But since all three became teammates in 2006-07, only Dumont has been completely healthy. Sullivan has appeared in 98 total games the last three seasons, and Arnott has appeared in at least 70 games once during the stretch.

Dumont is 31, and Arnott joins Sullivan in the 35-and-over club in early October. Who is going to take their place when the changing of the guard happens? We'll find out this season when the Predators welcome as many as three rookie forwards to the lineup, according to Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton. Cal O'Reilly, Nick Spaling, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Santorelli and Colin Wilson are the leading candidates.

The infusion of young blood is coming along at the right time for a franchise that has been successful in the Entry Draft -- Nashville's 2003 class, which featured Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, is Exhibit A. Of the 14 forwards on the roster of Nashville's official Web site, six are older than 30 and only three -- Hornqvist, Peter Olvecky and Ryan Jones -- are 25 or younger. The Predators are believed to have one of the better farm systems in the NHL, but the better prospects are on defense and in goal.

A wild card is 27-year-old center Ben Eaves, a former star at Boston College and a Hockey East scoring leader and player of the year. He returns to North America after two seasons in Finland, where he went 6-19-25 in 32 regular-season games.

At a "Skate of the Union" held in late July at the Sommet Center, GM David Poile addressed a throng of Predators fans with optimism that a full season from the top line and better seasons from veteran forwards David Legwand and Martin Erat will return Nashville to the postseason. "At forward, we're going to be much improved," Poile said. "The reason is that we're going to have our first line intact for the whole season ... and that's something we didn't have last year.

"When these guys are together, which we saw, they produced every game. I'm very confident, as I'm sure they are, that if everyone stays healthy -- knock on wood -- that we'll be just fine."

Legwand, the No. 2 pick of the 1998 Draft -- Nashville's first -- will be the No. 2 center once again. Erat will likely be one of his wings, and good things are expected of 28-year-old right wing Joel Ward, who chipped in 17 goals and 35 points as a rookie last season.

There has been little stability in goal since Tomas Vokoun was dealt in June 2007. The starting job has ping-ponged from Chris Mason to Dan Ellis to Pekka Rinne. The latter, a late-round draft pick from Finland, appears to be the real deal, but we'll soon learn if Rinne can handle and hold on to the No. 1 job.

Nashville hasn't really done anything exciting since the blockbuster trade to acquire Peter Forsberg on Feb. 15, 2007. In 10 seasons it has had only one coach, one GM, six playoff victories, no 40-goal scorers, and one League award winner (the 2009 Masterton Trophy, won by Sullivan).

The Predators aren't ... sexy. They're just ... the Predators, a 10-year-old expansion team still trying to make waves, still trying to nail down a loyal fan base in a non-traditional hockey market. Unfortunate, yes, that they have to contend in the Central Division with Original Six powers Chicago and Detroit, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the new darlings of the Central Division, and the young and extremely talented St. Louis Blues.

You can certainly make the case that a bounce back 2009-10 is vital to Nashville's future. Missing a second straight postseason would set the Predators back, and playoff success at this time is more crucial than another high draft pick.

PROSPECT ROUNDUP

Since the 2000 Entry Draft, seven draft picks by the Predators have recorded at least 50 career points. Three -- Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall and Alexander Radulov -- are no longer with the organization, and of the four that remain, three -- Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Dan Hamhuis -- are defensemen, the other being agitator Jordin Tootoo.

The Predators are hoping -- expecting? -- that forward Colin Wilson is going to be the latest to join that group and keep producing for years to come. Nashville also boasts a blue-chip defensive prospect who should continue the franchise's excellence in drafting blueliners.

Here is a look at the five biggest prospects in the Predators' system:

Jonathon Blum -- The 2007 first-rounder (No. 23) was named the Canadian Hockey League defenseman of the year in 2008-09. In four seasons with the Vancouver Giants, Blum, a California native, increased his point total each and finished last season with a plus-53 rating in 51 games. He appeared in five playoff games with AHL Milwaukee. "He handled himself very well," Fenton said of Blum's AHL audition. "There's not a smarter player as a prospect in our organization." There will be no surprises if he begins 2009-10 in Nashville.

Cody Franson -- Two seasons with AHL Milwaukee have primed the 22-year-old to take the next step, but there is competition from Blum and Alexander Sulzer. Franson (6-5, 214) is 22-66-88 in 152 games with Milwaukee and an AHL Second Team All-Star. "I expect he'll challenge hard for a position in training camp," Fenton said.

Ryan Jones -- The high-energy right wing was recalled three times from Milwaukee last season and appeared in 46 NHL games (7-10-17), but should stick around for all 82 games in 2009-10 (he re-signed for two years on a one-way contract). Originally drafted by Minnesota at No. 111 in 2004, Jones was acquired in the trade for Marek Zidlicky. "He will more than likely make our team this year," Fenton said.

Chet Pickard -- He completed his junior career with Tri-City by winning the Western Hockey League's goaltender of the year award. Pickard also helped Canada win the gold medal at the World Junior Championships with a 2-0 record, an 0.50 goals-against average and a .958 save percentage. The 2008 first-rounder (No. 18) is expected to begin his pro career with AHL Milwaukee in 2009-10. "We expect him to take his time, become an elite from the bottom up," Fenton said.

Colin Wilson -- Nashville's first pick (No. 7) in the 2008 Entry Draft was named the College Player of the Year by USA Hockey. The big center ranked second in the nation with 55 points (16 goals) and helped Boston University win the national championship as a sophomore. "The chances of him playing for us this year are pretty good. He's going to challenge for a position," Fenton said of the son of former NHL center Carey Wilson. "As with all our prospects, we like them to take their time. We say the route to Nashville is through Milwaukee. He will be a driving force there, and if he's ready he'll make our team he'll make it."

DRAFT RECAP

The Predators made 10 picks at the 2009 Entry Draft in Montreal, their largest haul since tabbing 11 prospects in 2004. Seven of the selections were used to take forwards, addressing the need for more scoring, though none of the picks figure to provide immediate help.

"(Charles-Olivier) Roussel was very high on our list. Our area scout was very, very high on him, so we couldn't pass on him. With our abundance of picks it allowed us to go for forwards until we got to Ekholm (in the fourth round)."

Ryan Ellis -- The No. 11 pick, Ellis, a defenseman from Hamilton, Ontario, was ranked 16th among North American skaters by Central Scouting. He scored 22 goals and 89 points in 57 games for Windsor of the OHL. Poile called the 5-foot-9, 173-pound Ellis "the most dynamic player in the draft."

Zach Budish -- At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, the right wing from Edina, Minn., is said to be a classic power forward. Budish scored 14 goals and 27 points in 15 games for Team Southwest in the Minnesota Elite High School League, and he'll attend the University of Minnesota.

Charles-Olivier Roussel -- With a second pick in the second round, the Predators went back to the blue line for the 17-year-old from St. Eustache, Quebec. Roussel was the 36th-ranked North American skater and scored 11 goals and 44 points in 68 games for Shawinigan of the QMJHL.

Taylor Beck -- A 6-2, 205-pound native of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Beck was rated 48th among North American skaters by Central Scouting. He was fourth in scoring for Guelph with 58 points (22 goals) in 67 games. Beck is projected as a two-way, playmaking forward.

Michael Latta -- The Predators went back to Guelph for a center who scored 22 goals and 57 points in 65 games (Latta began the season with Ottawa). The 5-11, 200-pounder won the accuracy shooting event at the CHL Top Prospects Game by hitting the four targets with six shots.

Craig Smith -- The first of three fourth-round picks, Smith will attend the University of Wisconsin in 2009-10. The 6-1, 189-pound center placed second in the United States Hockey League with 48 assists and was fourth in plus/minus with a plus-32.

Mattias Ekholm -- The 19-year-old Swede was Nashville's only selection from outside North America. The 6-4, 194-pounder is said to be a physical, stay-at-home defenseman. Ekholm scored 5 goals and 21 points in 59 games split between Mora's junior and senior teams.

Nick Oliver -- The center from Grand Forks, N.D., scored 4 goals and 14 points in eight games for Roseau High School before finishing the season with Fargo of the USHL, where he added a goal and an assist in 12 games. Oliver will attend St. Cloud State in 2009-10.

Gabriel Bourque -- The 5-9, 183-pound left wing was third on Baie-Comeau (QMJHL) in scoring with 61 points (22 goals) in 60 games. Bourque plays bigger than his size and brings a lot of energy.

Cameron Reid -- At No. 192, the Predators took an unranked center who will attend the University of New Hampshire. Reid scored 12 goals and 40 points in 58 games with Westside and Victoria of the British Columbia Hockey League.

FIVE GAMES NOT TO MISS

Oct. 8, 2009 vs. Colorado -- The Predators open their home schedule at the Sommet Center against a Western Conference foe.

Nov. 14, 2009 vs. Montreal -- The Canadiens visit Nashville for the first time since Feb. 22, 2007.

Nov. 23, 2009 vs. Detroit -- The first visit by the division rival Red Wings is a 5 p.m. local start because the Tennessee Titans are playing at Houston on Monday Night Football, making for a big sports night in the Music City.

Dec. 5, 2009 vs. Minnesota -- The Wild come to town with former Predators defensemen Marek Zidlicky and Greg Zanon as well as former Nashville owner Craig Leipold, now the owner of Minnesota.

March 16, 2010 vs. Philadelphia -- The Flyers visit Nashville for the first time since Dec. 3, 2005.
"In the years I've run the draft, since 2003, the only one year I directed to draft for a specific purpose was 2003, with five defensemen in our first seven picks," Fenton said. "This time around, we wanted to address forwards and size. That being said, with the special qualities that (Ryan) Ellis has we couldn't let that go by. With the ability to run a power play and the new game that we're playing so to speak, special teams play a large role. We couldn't pass on him. He's an elite power play specialist."
 
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