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Thursday, February 4, 2010
Preds remain one of NHL's constants

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

We remember talking to Nashville Predators general manager David Poile the night he landed Peter Forsberg in a trade three years ago.

You could sense the excitement in his voice as he talked about the possibilities, about what it meant for the team to make that kind of move.

Small picture, it might well have been a high-water mark for the franchise. Big picture, it illustrated that all things in all markets seemed possible in the new NHL.

It seems like such a long time ago for the Predators and the NHL.

The acquisition of the gifted center didn't translate into the long playoff run Poile had hoped it would, as the San Jose Sharks dispatched the Preds in five games in the first round.

Not long after, Poile was forced to strip down the Predators when former owner Craig Leipold decided to cut costs on his way out of Nashville and into Minnesota, where he is now the owner of the Wild.

Still, Poile, coach Barry Trotz and the Predators remain one of the constants in an ever-changing NHL landscape. The team remains competitive even in the face of difficult economic times in a small market. And at this time each season, Poile must walk the tightrope between keeping his eye on the prize at hand (making the playoffs) and ensuring the team's viability beyond this season.

All these issues come into play as Poile's Predators prepare to square off against the Colorado Avalanche, a Western Conference foe, on Thursday night in ESPN.com's Game of the Week.

The Predators enter the contest with 64 points and sit seventh in the Western Conference tied with Calgary and Detroit, while Dallas and Anaheim are just three points back. They have lost six of seven and have gone from battling for fourth place and home-ice advantage in the first round to worrying about missing the playoffs for a second straight season. As Poile pointed out in an interview earlier this week, the team has gone from finding ways to win close games, as it did throughout most of the first half of the season, to finding ways to lose them, as it did the other night when it lost 1-0 to Phoenix in a 10-round shootout.

Although Poile will be looking at what might be available on the trade market between now and the Feb. 12 Olympic roster freeze and March 3 trade deadline, the reality is the team will do more "tweaking" than any kind of "blockbuster" deal, Poile told ESPN.com.

Despite dire predictions about the team's ability to provide offense, Poile said the Predators have managed quite well up until this latest dry spell. (They rank 15th in the NHL in goals per game as of Wednesday.)

"Which is kind of a shout-out to our top players [that they need to respond]," Poile said.

Complicating issues is the possible departure of one of their impressive young defensemen. Poile deftly moved to lock up blue-line gems Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. But Dan Hamhuis, the first of what is widely considered the league's best collection of young defensive talent to blossom into an everyday NHLer, is poised to become an unrestricted free agent during the summer.

Poile has spoken with Hamhuis' agent, Wade Arnott, but it's uncertain whether Poile can accommodate what Hamhuis will want, both in terms of dollar and length of contract. Now, the $64,000 question is whether Poile will make a pre-emptive move to trade the solid defenseman, an invitee to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp in Calgary this past August, before the trade deadline or keep him because he is a key component of the Predators' quest for a postseason berth. (The 12th overall pick in 2001 averages 21 minutes, 4 seconds a night in ice time.)

It's an unsavory dilemma, and Poile acknowledged that GMs have to get more used to watching assets walk away on July 1 in the new NHL. That said, if that happens with Hamhuis, "I can't believe on July 1 I'd be very happy," Poile said.

Expect Hamhuis in the lineup Thursday, although another promising young defenseman, Cody Franson, won't be. He sustained a broken rib in Tuesday's loss to Phoenix and will be out for a couple of weeks.

Poile's counterpart, first-year Colorado GM Greg Sherman, also will be balancing what his team might be able to accomplish this season with the long-term plan he and his staff put into place when he took over the job in June.

As with Poile's Predators, the preseason outlook for the Avs was modest, to say the least. Certainly few -- how about no one? -- expected the Avalanche to challenge for the Northwest Division crown as they are today.

As of Thursday, the Avalanche were two points out of first in the division, but a recent, albeit brief, slide dropped them to sixth in the conference, four points ahead of ninth.

Sherman pointed out the Avs were among the last NHL teams to fail to earn a point in three straight games this season. (They've lost to Minnesota, Dallas and the New York Rangers in the past week.) Colorado stopped that streak with a strong performance in a 5-1 win over Columbus on Tuesday.

As for possibly making a move to add some offensive depth (the Avs have suffered injuries mostly to their forward corps, including veteran sniper Milan Hejduk), Sherman said he will explore whether there is a deal to be made.

"But having said that, we've got a pretty good thing going here," he told ESPN.com.

Sherman pointed out the interesting dynamic that has developed in the Avs' dressing room with a host of youngsters maturing far more quickly than expected and playing key roles both offensively and defensively. Three Avs are among the top 10 rookie point producers, including top prospect Matt Duchene, who leads all first-year players with 37 points. Brandon Yip, a former Boston University forward, has been a revelation, producing at almost a point-per-game pace since being called up from the AHL. Defenseman Ryan Wilson, 23, turned an opportunity due to injury into a full-time gig on the Avs' blue line.

Their youthful enthusiasm has, in turn, energized veteran leaders such as captain Adam Foote, Scott Hannan and Darcy Tucker, while the youngsters have been quick to learn from the veteran group.

The fact that no one outside the Avs organization expected them to be here has little to do with how Sherman proceeds.

"We have a culture of winning here," he said. They will pursue any moves with that in mind.

One thing Sherman said isn't likely to happen is shopping veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles, who periodically has been a healthy scratch throughout the season. Liles, who is in the first season of a three-year deal, has been with the franchise since leaving Michigan State and is still part of the team's plans moving forward despite a rocky season.

"We have expectations he'll get back to being the type of player we know he can be," Sherman said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.