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Larry Wigge | columnist
Feb 3, 2007, 9:26 AM EST

It took eight seasons for Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile’s dream of having a hockey team built on character, speed and discipline to fully realize its potential ... and then some.

After steady improvement by points each season since the Predators first dropped the puck in the NHL in 1998-99, Poile’s team turned dream into reality with its first playoff berth in the 2003-04 season -- qualifying for the postseason on the final weekend of the season. Following the lockout, the yellow brick road to the playoffs was easier for the Predators last season. And, this season, Nashville is threatening to post the best record in the NHL.

There are those who say you can no longer use the cookie-cutter approach to building a great team through the Entry Draft like the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. But Poile is disproving that theory. He has stuck by his draft choices and complemented the David Legwands, Martin Erats, Scott Hartnells, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suters, Shea Webers and Alexander Radulovs with trades for defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky, along with speedy Steve Sullivan and a hand-picked group of free agents that includes Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont.

Where once all opponents had to do was stop Kariya, Sullivan, Timonen and Zidlicky, the true difference-makers on the team, the Predators now boast a plethora of scary offensive threats up front and on defense.

"We have different heroes every night, it seems," said Sullivan. "That’s what happens when you’ve got eight guys with 10 or more goals in your lineup. Lots of weapons."

Looking at this team each season, you’ve seen a puzzle of different parts that was all wrapped up into the same theme: character, speed and discipline. Size has only begun to matter of late.

"In the first five or six years we tried to do almost everything though the draft," said Poile, who told me he struggled long and hard with the decision of trading two precious second-round draft choices to Chicago for Sullivan just before the March trade deadline in 2004. "It was at that point, however, when we thought we were becoming competitive and decided that help now was better than draft choice development later."

It was before the next season that Poile made his biggest coup, signing Kariya as a free agent after an unfulfilling season for Paul with the Colorado Avalanche. Kariya was hungry to win and to prove that he was still among the elite players in the NHL. He’s done both ... and more.

"Having Paul on this team is like having another coach on the ice," coach Barry Trotz said. "I’ll see him talking to one of the players, motioning that it would be better if he did this or did that, and, suddenly, that player takes off."

It’s no coincidence. Strength of character and great leadership are the keys to every successful franchise in sports. And that’s where the constants on this team start and end with Poile, Trotz, Timonen on defense and Vokoun and Mason in goal, plus players who have made it to the Stanley Cup Final like Kariya and Arnott.

"You look at how our younger players have responded to the veterans and it’s heartening," Poile said. "Look at David Legwand and Scott Hartnell (first-round picks in 1998 and 2000). It’s no coincidence that they are now having career years for us after being around for several years now."

In acquiring Timonen and Zidlicky on defense and Sullivan and Kariya up front, the Predators had four difference-makers in the lineup. But just a couple years after those pieces were put into the mix together, Nashville’s prospects -- primarily Legwand and Hartnell up front, along with youngsters like Weber, Suter and Hamhuis on defense -- have given the team three lines that can score , plus a defense that works the transition game perfectly.

This is a togetherness fest, with each player chosen to fit those character, speed, passion, pride and discipline tenants that Poile and Trotz subscribe to.

"They play with great discipline ... and when you make a mistake, they make you pay with their speed," Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told me at the All-Star Game.

Poile knew there would be bumps in the road with an expansion team. That’s why he started with character players like Mike Dunham and Vokoun in goal, Timonen on defense and forwards with plenty of passion like Scott Walker, Greg Johnson and Andrew Brunette. Then, he filled in the blanks with his prized draft choices and, after a time, started supplementing trades and free agents into the mix.

Today, the first-place Predators boast a roster with seven home-grown draft choices, six free agents, five players acquired in trades and one claimed on waivers.

"And every one of us has learned how to play the Predators way," Legwand told me recently. "It’s like we’re all of the same mind, same characteristics. And we have pride in the colors we wear to battle every night."

"All the planning just seems to be melding together as a team for us," said Trotz.

The tipoff to a team with the right mix to win in the playoffs is in how it does on the road, where winning consistently takes hard work, pride and a great team character. When the Predators won in St. Louis, 6-3, Jan. 27, it was the team’s 18th road win this season -- the most by any team in the NHL and it tied a Nashville record set in 2000-01.

"Before, we would go in buildings hoping we could win on the road," goaltender Chris Mason told me. "This year, we go on the road knowing we can win. There’s a trust from the top of the lineup to the bottom."

So, the next time someone tells you that good teams can no longer be built through the draft like the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers were in the 1980s, just point them in the direction David Poile and his Nashville Predators.

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