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By Matt Canamucio, NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Nashville Predators are one of those clubs who seem to be on the cusp of big things.

They have qualified for the postseason in two consecutive seasons, and have made improvements in the name of franchise development. Last summer it was Paul Kariya giving the team a bona fide offensive leader, and this time around it's Jason Arnott providing the presence of a legit No. 1 centerman.

That said, the team did suffer some key offseason losses, as centers Greg Johnson, Yanic Perreault and Mike Sillinger all left via free agency. And winger Scott Walker was traded to Carolina for Josef Vasicek.

In addition, defensemen Danny Markov, Mark Eaton and Brendan Witt won't be back either.

The exits were due in part to the Predators' inability to spend a ton of money because they are still small market. That said, the cap space they do have will allow them to make a move come March if need be.

The Predators are going to be trendy pick for playoff success this year, and many will have them finishing ahead of a changing Red Wings team in the Central Division.

Let's take things one step at a time and go from there.

FORWARDS - Kariya had a down year with Colorado in 2003-04, but came back on the star scene with the Preds. He led the team with 54 assists and 85 points, and tied for second in goals with 31. Kariya is one of the premier players of the last decade, and he proved last season that he can still live up to that.

Steve Sullivan, meanwhile, continues to play larger than his 155-pound frame. His blazing speed helped him score 31 goals in 69 games, and he tallied at least 20 for the eighth straight campaign.

Arnott is the definition of a power center, and he had the best season of his career with Dallas in 05-06. He recorded 32 goals and 44 assists in 81 games -- the most he has ever played in one season.

Arnott's presence allows David Legwand to drop down to the second line, and perhaps that will alleviate some pressure off him. Legwand missed a nice chunk of last season with a knee injury, but even when healthy he has not lived up to what he was supposed to be. He is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, but the Preds are still waiting him to eclipse the 20-goal mark in a season.

Joining Arnott as an addition is winger J.P. Dumont, who went to arbitration with Buffalo this summer. The Sabres walked away from the ruling, thus allowing him to ink a free agent deal with the Predators. Dumont immediately gives head coach Barry Trotz a dependable scorer to plug into his second line.

Vasicek missed significant time with a knee injury last season, and sat out most of the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup run. However, if 100 percent he is a guy who can provide hints of offense while being responsible at the defensive end. Expect Trotz to use him as his third-line center.

Martin Erat has emerged as a dependable producer and could see time on the top line, while Scott Hartnell is a power winger who has developed into a consistent producer. The former first-rounder tallied 25 goals in 81 games a season ago.

DEFENSE - The Predators feature a defense that can skate with the best of them and contribute to the offensive cause as well. However. the group yields significant size as a result, and will clearly miss a guy like Witt. Witt, of course, was obtained last year at the deadline to provide some grit on the backline.

Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky are both terrific point men who contribute mightily to the team's power play. Zidlicky has scored 26 goals in two full NHL seasons, and last year was a plus-8. Of course, the 29-year-old still has some careless-ness and defensive deficiencies to work on.

Dan Hamhuis is another offensive threat, while sophomore Ryan Suter comes into this season with a full year under his belt. Suter was the seventh- overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and is sound all-around.

An x-factor here is Shea Weber, who the team hopes will provide a physical presence. This will be the 215-pounder's first full NHL campaign.

GOALTENDING - Tomas Vokoun was brilliant in 05-06, going 36-18-7 with a 2.67 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. However, his season was cut short due to a blood clot disorder. The Czech, who appeared in 61 games before his condition was discovered, is said to be 100 percent healthy at this point.

However, it would be wise for Trotz to make sure to provide a decent amount of rest for his starter. Chris Mason is the backup, and, while he is a step down in class, he performed well down the stretch and in the postseason.

http://146.145.120.3/default.asp?c=hockeynews&page=nhl/news/adn4042360.htm
 
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