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HOCKEY

As Preds try to move forward, depth will be tested

In many ways, the 2010-11 season was a high point in the history of the Nashville Predators.

For the first time in the organization's 13-year history, they made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That achievement came courtesy of a thrilling six-game victory against the higher-seeded Anaheim Ducks.

Unfortunately, the euphoria lasted just two weeks, as the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks used an unforgettable series from Ryan Kesler to advance to the Western Conference Finals with a six-game victory against the Preds.

So while there was obvious joy at advancing past another hurdle -- the Predators had lost the previous five first-round series they contested -- there was also a period of introspection caused by the what-ifs that follow any hard-fought loss in the playoffs.

Could the Predators have won the Western Conference Finals if they had found a way to hold off the Canucks? We'll never know, but the bar has certainly been raised considerably by the very existence of that tantalizing possibility.

It's a development that will be welcomed with open arms by General Manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz, who have been building to just such a scenario throughout their tenure in Music City.

After all, there is no denying that the Predators have the defensive framework to be a tough out in the postseason. Nashville has a still-emerging star goalie in Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne. The Predators also have perhaps the best one-two punch on defense in the League in the dynamic Shea Weber and the equally effective Ryan Suter.

Now it just becomes a matter of surrounding that unquestioned core with the proper support pieces.

Have the Predators done so this offseason? That remains to be seen.

There is no denying that the Predators took some hits to their vaunted depth, but the club has never had trouble developing replacement players from an organizational depth chart that is the envy of many teams throughout the League.

That ability will certainly be taxed this preseason, though. The Predators lost five forwards who could have played important roles for the club in the 2011-12 season.

Power forward Joel Ward had an up-and-down regular season, managing just 29 points. But a dominant postseason -- in which he scored 13 points in 12 games -- elevated his stock across the League and intensified the bidding for his services when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1. He is now a member of the Washington Capitals.

Veteran Steve Sullivan battled injuries again in 2010-11 -- he has played more than 60 games just once in the past four years -- but was effective when he was in the lineup, managing 22 points in 44 games. He now will bring his offensive acumen to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Center Marcel Goc only scored 9 goals in 54 games, but he remained an integral part of the forward rotation by doing all the little things that are integral to Nashville's success -- winning faceoffs, killing penalties, backchecking. He is now in Florida.

The 33-year-old J-P Dumont had a year he would like to forget, scoring just 10 goals -- his lowest total since 2000 -- and 19 points for Nashville. It was a stunning fall from grace for a player that had scored 83 goals in his first four seasons with the club. He was bought out.

Finally, Matthew Lombardi, a speedy center who saw his season derailed by a serious concussion, was traded away to Toronto along with steadily improving defenseman Cody Franson in exchange for defenseman Brett Lebda, who was later waived, and forward Robert Slaney.

Franson might be missed more than any of the other departures. Lost in the shadow of Weber and Suter, he has quietly emerged as a prototypical second-pairing defenseman at the age of 24. He had 8 goals and 21 points last season in 80 games and has an incredible upside.

Nashville also parted ways with veteran defenseman Shane O'Brien, who was an unrestricted free agent.

For this offseason, the story is almost as much about whom the Predators kept, as it is about those brought into the fold as members of the supporting cast.

Most important, the team elected for salary arbitration with superstar defenseman Shea Weber, assuring the restricted free agent would not be the target of offer sheets from other clubs. As such, the Predators guaranteed Weber will be with the team this year and there will be an opportunity to get him signed to a long-term deal before he reaches free agency again in the summer of 2012.

The club also re-signed Sergei Kostitsyn, the team's leading goal-scorer from last season. Forwards Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling, Cal O'Reilly and Chris Mueller were also brought back for another year of development.

As far as true acquisitions, Poile just tinkered this summer, counting on his core to replicate last season's accomplishments, as well as some ready reinforcements from the club's minor-league affiliate in Milwaukee.

Poile rolled the dice with youngster Niclas Bergfors, who split the past season with Atlanta and Florida. The 24-year old managed just 12 goals and 36 points in 72 games, but he has quite the offensive pedigree, scoring 21 goals in his rookie season, which was split between New Jersey and Atlanta.

The Predators also signed Kyle Wilson, who broke into the NHL last season with Columbus and had 4 goals and 11 points in 32 games. Finally, the club added some toughness by signing Zack Stortini, who has been making a name for himself in the Western Conference for the past five seasons.

The Predators may have lost more players than they gained this summer, but if any organization was built to withstand such a transition it is Nashville.

The Predators boast a rock-solid foundation that is anchored by its three young game-breakers -- Weber, Suter and Rinne, the latter of whom won 33 games last season and posted a 2.12 goals-against average, and is the old man of that troika at just 28.

The Predators also have some solid complementary pieces to add to the equation.

Martin Erat, the team's co-leading scorer last season despite missing 18 games with a back injury, has proven to be capable of 20 goals and 50-plus points in a given year. Kostitsyn proved last season that he is in the same neighborhood as well.

Patric Hornqvist regressed a bit from his breakout season in 2009-10, but is still considered a dynamic player. Veteran David Legwand, the institutional memory of the Predators, is still an offensive threat. Center Colin Wilson and defenseman Kevin Klein are others actively trying to bull their way into the conversation about Nashville's dynamic core of young players.

Plus, the Predators still have Trotz, the only coach the franchise has known. No matter the players, the underrated Trotz -- who was up for the Jack Adams Trophy again last season -- squeezes the most possible out of the lineup he is handed.