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Team Preview: Nashville Predators

Key additions: Paul Kariya, LW (FA - COL); Daniil Markov, D (T - PHI); Scott Nichol, C/RW (FA - CHI); Darcy Hordichuk, LW (T - FLA); Randy Robitaille, C/LW (FA - ATL); Sheldon Brookbank, D (FA - ATL); Kris Beech, C (T - PIT); Ryan Suter, D (D - 2003, 1/7); Shea Weber, D (D - 2003, 2/49)

Key losses: Andreas Lilja, D (FA - DET); Shane Hnidy, D (T - ATL); Andrew Hutchinson, D (T - CRL); Andreas Johansson, C/LW/RW (FA - Europe); Robert Schnabel, D (FA - Europe); Cam Severson, LW (FA - CGY); Wyatt Smith, C (FA - NYI); Vladimir Orszagh, RW (FA); Brad Bombardir, D (FA)

Key players unsigned: Adam Hall, RW

Forwards: Paul Kariya had the worst year of his career in 2003-04, racking up only 36 points in 51 games for the Avalanche (three fewer points than he had in 47 games as a rookie in 1994-95). Kariya is clearly not that bad a hockey player, but is he a $4.5 million man in the salary cap era? He may very well be. Kariya has scored at well over a point per game over his career, is only 30, and will be his team's primary offensive option for the first time since 2002-03, a season in which he posted 81 points. Kariya is a shot-producing machine, four times besting 300 shots on goal in a season and once breaking 400 (by comparison, only one player, Ilya Kovalchuk with 341, had more than 300 shots in 2003-04). It may be early, but Kariya certainly has the inside track on Comeback Player of the Year. Kariya will have plenty of help up front with the talented Martin Erat, the speedy David Legwand and another dimunitive playmaker, the always-in-motion Steve Sullivan, as well as the gritty Scott Walker and a pair of young guns in agitator Scottie Upshall and power forward Scott Hartnell. Greg Johnson, Robitaille and crowd-favorite Jordin Tootoo will also see plenty of ice time. The Predators have seven regular forwards under six feet tall (Kariya, Sullivan, Walker, Erat, Johnson, Robitaille and Nichol), and contrary to popular belief, that still may be a problem in the "new NHL." They also could use another center, but the Predators boast their deepest group of forwards to date, and with Kariya leading the way, this team should break the top 10 in goals scored.

Defensemen: Like its forwards, Nashville's blueline is also undersized, as top pair Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen are both under six feet tall. Both posses impressive offensive skills, though, and Timonen's speed and smarts often make up for his lack of size in his own zone. Markov was brought in as a big hitter with some skill, and should see minutes in all situations for Nashville. The year off should help 2001 first round pick (12th overall) Dan Hamhuis, who dominated for the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL in 2004-05 and who should continue his emergence as a top-four defenseman. Mark Eaton is a decent back-end defenseman and Jamie Allison is the most physical of the Preds' blueliners, but offers little else. The real excitement is about youngsters Suter and Weber, at least one of whom should have a good shot at making the opening night roster, and both of whom will be key contributors before long.

Goaltenders: Tomas Vokoun showed the world that he is a big game goalie when he lead the Czechs to gold at the 2005 Worlds, shutting out Canada in the final (the Detroit Red Wings already knew how good Vokoun is after being frustrated time and again in the 2003-04 playoffs). Vokoun is an aggressive goalie who is developing the cocky edge that fellow countryman Dominik Hasek has carried for years. His numbers haven't been great (2.53 goals against average, .909 save percentage in 2003-04), but that is largely due to the lack of experience playing in front of him; as they improve, so will Vokoun's numbers. Vokoun's backup will be Chris Mason.

Bottom line: The Preds made the playoffs for the first time in 2003-04 and gave Detroit a scare in the first round, pushing the Presidents' Trophy winners to six games before bowing out. Building on that success, the Predators took their first big dip in the free agent pool when they signed Kariya in early August. General Manager David Poile has put together a team in Music City that he believes was a player or two away from contending for a division, if not a conference title, and Kariya fit one of those needs. Well, the Predators still have needs. They need more size up front, a little more down the middle and they need more experience, especially on the blueline, before they can challenge the Western Conference's elites. But the Nashville Predators will make the playoffs with the team they have now, and if they can add the one or two missing pieces and the team matures, they are certainly capable of surprising people in the spring.