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Original Issue

25 Nashville Predators Here's a guarantee: This undermanned club won't make the postseason

It was a terrific summer for right wing Scott Walker. On July 9
he shot his first hole in one. Two days later his wife, Julie,
gave birth to their first child, son Cooper. In September, Walker
rejoined his teammates on the ice after missing the last 39 games
of 2001-02 because of postconcussion syndrome. Says Walker, "I'm
excited to be around the guys again."

The Predators will need a reversal of fortune as dramatic as
Walker's to meet owner Craig Leipold's guarantee that the team
will reach the playoffs this season. (If it doesn't, he will
refund the 6% increase in the cost of season tickets this year,
the first price jump in the franchise's five-year history.) In
2001-02 Nashville tied for 13th in the talent-heavy Western
Conference with 69 points, 25 behind the Canucks, who took the
final playoff spot. The Predators didn't do much in the
off-season to help themselves, adding four journeyman
forwards--Brent Gilchrist, Denis Pederson, Domenic Pittis and
Clarke Wilm.

Worse, the playoff pledge has put unaccustomed pressure on the
players, who have enjoyed a honeymoon in Nashville. "If we're
10-10 after 20 games, but two points out of a playoff spot, we'll
be asked about missing the postseason," says Walker, who scored
only four goals last year after a career-best 25 in 2000-01.
"We're going to hear about it all year."

The Predators do have virtues. The gifted young line of Denis
Arkhipov, Vladimir Orszgah and Martin Erat (average age: 23)
speaks well for the future, and solid goalie Mike Dunham keeps
Nashville in most games. General manager David Poile has
patiently used the draft to accumulate talent, and he could see
some more of those top picks--in particular, forwards Scott
Hartnell, 20, and David Legwand, 22--start to contribute regularly
this year.

Coach Barry Trotz counts Walker's return as the equivalent of a
significant acquisition, but will that be enough to reach the
playoffs? "In terms of developing with youth, this is about where
I thought we'd be in Year Five," Trotz says. "But I didn't expect
the West to be as dominant as it is."

That doesn't sound much like a guarantee. --P.M.



Barry Trotz has coached the Predators since they joined the NHL
in '98-99, a span of 328 games. The only man to guide an
expansion team from its start for longer was Terry Crisp (Tampa,
391 matches).



OFFENSE 24 Erat, Arkhipov and Legwand best of the
DEFENSE 27 Lacks a stopper to match against top
GOALTENDING 15 Dunham a solid workhorse, gives team a
SPECIAL TEAMS 23 Excellent coaching, hustle make penalty
killing work
MANAGEMENT 20 Slow progress, but G.M. Poile building
good product