By Jacob Luft, CNNSI.com
The Predators regressed last season, slipping to 69 points after improving in each of their first three seasons. To make matters worse, they traded away their top scorer, Cliff Ronning, for a guy who has been suspended for a substance-abuse violation (Jere Karalahti) and a third-round pick.
So what should Nashville expect in 2002-03?
A playoff spot.
That is, if you believe what the front office has to say. At least they are willing to put their own money on the line, promising season-ticket holders a refund on the increased ticket prices if they don't earn the franchise's first playoff appearance."I think we put enough pressure on ourselves," Predators general manager David Poile said. "Our goal, with or without the playoff pledge, was clearly to make the playoffs this year. I think the coaches and players understand that and we will do our best to live up to our own goals and expectations. It's a motivational tool for both your fans and your players. All I can say is with or without it, we are going to play as hard as we can and we are going to do everything that we can to make the playoffs this year."
If Nashville had succeeded in bringing in a big-time scorer in free agency, this boast wouldn't ring so hollow. But the best the Preds could bring in was a group of serviceable lower-line veterans like Brent Gilchrist, Clarke Wilm and Denis Pederson.
The Predators' hopes rest on the continued development of their impressive core of youngsters. Twenty-one-year-old Denis Arkhipov, who went from 13 points two years ago to 42 last season, and 20-year-old Scott Hartnell (16 to 41), are two budding stars that will lead this team to the playoffs soon enough, even if it doesn't happen this year.
The other key parts of Nashville's present and future -- Kimmo Timonen, Andy Delmore, Vladimir Orszagh and Martin Erat -- are all 27 or younger, and appear to have a great deal of upside. Greg Johnson, the team's top returning scorer, should provide veteran leadership.
Perhaps the best "addition" to the club this season will be center Scott Walker, who missed most of last season with post-concussion syndrome. Walker scored 25 goals two years ago and will be a top threat on the power play.
"I'm reading all the so-called experts and they have us way at the bottom all the time," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. "And I hope they are wrong. I know we have a better team than we did last year."
Kimmo Timonen, D -- In a league where offensive defensemen are a premium, the Predators have a valuable asset in Timonen. He's not quite Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar, Rob Blake or Brian Leetch, but Timonen isn't far behind, joining Sandis Ozolinsh, Brian Rafalski, Bryan McCabe and other in the second tier of offensive-minded rearguards.
Timonen tied for second on the team in points last season with a career-high 42 points and was plus-2. And that was only in his fourth season in the NHL. With Ronning gone, his leadership skills also will be tested.
"Timonen is a real smart defenseman," Trotz said. "He's not that big in terms of height, but he's really put together physically and he's got lots or courage. He's a very smart and intelligent player. Our team has not been known for its offense, and every year he is getting 40-some points. That's not so bad when the top defensemen in the league are getting maybe 60 points."
In a word: Goals -- The mix of youth and experience is nice, but in the end, you have to have somebody who can score consistently. You need a proven, veteran goal-scorer who can draw attention away from teammates.
The Predators don't appear to have that right now, although it is conceivable that somebody will emergein the near future.
"Offensively, we are challenged," Poile said. "To make the playoffs, we are going to have to score more goals than we have in the past. Everybody has to step up. I don't think we need somebody to score 40 goals, but we need everybody to score some goals. Whether it be on our first line or our fourth line, we need everybody to chip in with goals."
At least with the return of Walker and the possible addition of top prospect Dan Hamhuis, the Predators have a good chance to improve on their 196-goal performance, which ranked 24th in the league.
Is it now or never for David Legwand?
As the franchise enters its fifth season, it is expecting a much bigger contribution from its first-ever draft pick.
Legwand can't blame a lack of playing time for his slow development. He has played in 215 NHL games the past three years, producing only 99 points in the process.
"We are remaining patient with him," Trotz said. "Where we are in terms of his career is plain and simple. He's still a young player, but I think now the time for the nurturing process of us giving him shifts to help him develop and to give him confidence is probably over. He's probably a little more accountable now in terms of his play will dictate his ice time."
For a team that lacks goal-scoring punch, a breakout season from Legwand would be huge. Another lackluster effort, however, could signal the end of his run in Nashville.
The Predators point to former high draft picks Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund, each of whom had breakout years last season in their mid 20s. Additionally, Joe Thornton took several years to develop with the Bruins and Vincent Lecavalier has come along slowly for the Lightning. Lecavalier and Legwand were the first and second picks in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
"This will be the start of David's fourth year and he just turned 22 a couple of weeks ago," Poile said. "I was just watching the NFL games and some of their first-round picks are playing their first game at age 22. So I think we all know that in hockey your best years are in your mid or late 20s, and the development process is different both physically and mentally for everybody. So we are sticking with him and I'm very confident that this will be his best year so far."
But without a long-awaited breakout year in the next few seasons, Legwand could join Alexandre Daigle and Pat Falloon as the biggest draft busts in the past dozen years.
The loss of Karalahti could be softened greatly if Hamhuis has a strong rookie season. Nashville's top choice in 2001 scored 60 points in 59 games with Prince George of the WHL last season, earning the league's defenseman of the year honors, ahead of 2002 No. 3 overall pick Jay Bouwmeester. But scoring isn't his only skill -- Hamhuis also added 135 penalty minutes, proving he likes the rough stuff, too.
The 19-year-old will have every opportunity to make the club out of training camp. Hamhuis' strengths include smooth skating skills and a heavy slap shot. Predators fans have reason to be excited about their future blue line with Timonen and Hamhuis leading the way.
"His best skills are competitiveness, his ability to skate and see the ice," Trotz said. "He's got good mobility, good hockey sense, he can pass the puck. He can do a lot of different things. A guy who is not really big but is very competitive and has had a long career is Chris Chelios. He's kind of similar to him in terms of not being overly big but having a real competitive nature."
Hamhuis could start the season with the Preds' AHL affiliate in Milwaukee if he doesn't have a great training camp.
"You want to put people in a position where they can succeed and not fail," Poile said. "One of the big things for a defenseman coming into the league is how much bigger and more aggressive and more physical the players are in the NHL. And as a young player who is still physically developing, I certainly don't want him to be mismatched at this level. When that doesn't become a concern anymore, then I think his chances of playing here on a regular basis will be a lot higher."
Jacob Luft is a CNNSI.com producer.