David Poile had always run the Predators on a shoestring budget.
In the franchise's first two seasons Nashville's payroll was the
NHL's smallest, and last year's $19.6 million tab, though large
by club standards, was the league's fifth-lowest. Yet in August,
Poile persuaded owner Craig Leipold to commit $14 million--$1
million less than the entire roster made in the Predators'
inaugural season of 1998-99--to re-sign Nashville's two most
critical free agents, goaltender Mike Dunham (three years, $8.6
million) and winger Scott Walker (three years, $5.4 million). Of
the 29-year-old Dunham, whose .923 save percentage last season
was tops among starting goalies, Poile says, "I believe your
highest-paid player should be your best player. Dunham gives us
a chance to win almost every night. If we're going to be
successful, he's going to be a big part of the team."
Unfortunately, the spending spree won't help if the Predators
can't score. Aside from the 28-year-old Walker, whose 25 goals
and 29 assists last year were career highs, and left wing Cliff
Ronning (19, 43), Nashville's forwards lack firepower. The
Predators have never had a 30-goal scorer, and their 186 goals
last season were the NHL's third fewest. Coach Barry Trotz will
hang his hopes for improvement on 21-year-old center David
Legwand, the second pick in the 1998 draft, and 20-year-old
winger Martin Erat, who had 82 points in 48 junior games last
year and earned a roster spot thanks to a strong training camp.
"These young guys have to realize that they have a chance to
play a prominent role in the organization this year," says
captain Tom Fitzgerald, a center. "I don't think they could ask
for anything more."
Two people who haven't benefited from Leipold's newfound
largesse, however, are Poile and Trotz. They, as well as the
members of Trotz's staff, are in the last year of their
contracts. Though the Predators are moving in the right
direction--their points have increased from 63 to 70 to
80--Nashville is still at least a year from its first postseason
berth, and the club's architects may not be around long enough to
see their labors bear fruit. "Our conference is very, very
tough," says Fitzgerald. "We know 80 points used to get you into
the playoffs. Not anymore."
Of the 77 NHL players who appeared in all 82 of their team's
games last season, Predators defenseman Cale Hulse had the fewest
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 24 Need scoring; former No. 1 pick Legwand
DEFENSE 12 Timonen is smart and reliable; Hulse is solid
GOALTENDING 9 Dunham and Vokoun form an outstanding tandem
SPECIAL TEAMS 20 Expect Hartnell to make his mark on the PK
MANAGEMENT 9 G.M. Poile has plotted a steady course for