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Thursday, August 1, 2002
Updated: August 8, 3:56 PM ET
Predators raise expectations, not payroll

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

So much for progress. One season after posting 34 wins and flirting with the playoffs, the Nashville Predators slumped to 28 wins and 69 points. That represented the franchise's worst showing since posting 63 points (and an identical 28 wins) in 1998-99, its inaugural season.

2001-02 by the numbers
Record:
28-41-13-0, 69 pts.
(T24th overall, T13th West, 4th Central)
Goals for:
196/2.39 (24th overall)
Goals against:
230/2.76 (23rd overall)
Differential:
-34 (24th overall)
20-goal scorers:
Denis Arkhipov (20)
50-point scorers:
None
The collapse was a complete team effort. To begin with, the offense failed to improve, scoring just 10 more goals than the previous season. Cliff Ronning was dealt to Los Angeles in time to play 14 games for the Kings, but his 49 points with Nashville still were enough to lead the team. In four seasons, the Predators have yet to top 200 goals in a season. Only Atlanta, who joined the league one year later, is in the same boat when it comes to goal-scoring futility. Not that a few extra goals would have landed the Predators in the playoffs last season. Goaltending and defense, supposedly the team's strengths, crumbled under the weight of postseason expectations.

Looking at next season
After raising ticket prices for the upcoming season, owner Craig Leipold promised season-ticket holders a refund of the additional cost if the Predators don't make the playoffs. Depending on your point of view, that's either a sign of optimism or an indication that the team will once again lack the revenue base to make any significant personnel moves.

The Predators have been active in free agency, but the additions are unlikely to cure the team's offensive woes. Having lost four-year captain Tom Fitzgerald to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Predators acquired Brent Gilchrist, Clarke Wilm, Denis Pederson, Domenic Pittis and Cameron Mann. Among them, only Gilchrist has scored 20 goals in a season, but that was in 1995-96. Since then, he's totaled just 32 goals. In other words, the team is once again looking for young players to step forward and produce. Topping that list is center David Legwand. Injuries limited Legwand to 63 games and 11 goals last season, far less than most expected in his third full season. While he's shown good defensive instincts for a player his age, Legwand, who turns 22 in August, was drafted in the first round based on offensive potential.

The Predators would love to see Legwand improve as much in one season as Scott Hartnell did during his sophomore campaign. After scoring two goals and earning a minus-8 rating in 75 games his rookie season, Hartnell tallied 14 goals, 41 points and a plus-five rating in 75 games. A concussion prematurely ended his season, but he may represent Nashville's best hope for a 25-goal scorer this season. Greg Johnson, Denis Arkhipov (team-leading 20 goals last season), Vladimir Orszagh, Vitali Yachmenev and Petr Tenkrat are all serviceable third-line forwards, unfortunately Nashville too often needs them on the top two lines. The newcomers, especially Gilchrist and Wilm, give coach Barry Trotz a lot of interchangeable parts for the top three lines. A few more snipers would be nice, but mediocrity with depth is a lot better than mediocrity without depth.

Scott Walker would count as an offseason addition if he returns at 100 percent. Limited to 25 games last season by post-concussion syndrome, Walker had just begun to exercise regularly at the end of the regular season. Considered a blossoming power forward when he scored 25 goals in 2000-01, Walker is a much-needed option on the top line and power play.

While it wasn't nearly enough, the offense did improve by 10 goals last season. The defense has no such reprieve from criticism. A year after allowing just 200 goals, Nashville surrendered 230 goals, more than all but two Western Conference teams (Minnesota and Columbus). Andy Delmore scored 16 goals, third-best on the team, and was still viewed as one the unit's weak spots. While Delmore's contributions to the power play are a major reason the unit held steady at 23rd in the league, his repeated defensive lapses eventually cost him playing time. He's back for another season, but Trotz may keep him on a short leash. Equally valuable on the attack, but more reliable in his own end, Kimmo Timonen continues to quietly carve out a niche as one of the league's most underrated blueliners.

Although last season's numbers belie it, there's solid depth behind offensive weapons Timonen and Delmore. Karlis Skrastins is improving as a defensive defenseman and Bill Houlder and Cale Hulse are both capable of handling extensive minutes without embarrassing themselves. Among defensive newcomers, Pascal Trepanier and Dan Hamhuis have the most potential. Acquired from Colorado, Trepanier, 28, appeared in 73 games for the league's stingiest defense. Hamhuis, Nashville's first-round pick last season, was named the Canadian Hockey League's player of the year after recording 10 goals and 50 assists in 59 games for Prince George of the Western Hockey League.

Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun suffered statistical setbacks last season, but the tandem remains valuable. The team's collective .901 save percentage (Jan Lasak played two games at the end of the season) was hardly atrocious and only underscores the brilliance of the previous season's .915 save percentage. While Dunham, 30, may never truly emerge as a top-tier goalie, he's certainly better than a number of NHL netminders with playoff appearances on their resumes.

The Predators have been the model of financial restraint in their four seasons, but last season's performance places a lot of pressure on the organization. Leipold and general manager David Poile have responded by promising the playoffs while doing little to improve the on-ice product. That's a recipe for disaster unless a host of young players make major strides this season.