- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Never mind winning the Stanley Cup. Nashville Predators GM David Poile might well have saved his entire franchise Thursday evening.
With ruthless efficiency that belies his understated demeanor, Poile has established himself as one of the gutsiest, most assertive GMs in the business with his coup de grace acquisition of Philadelphia center Peter Forsberg.
If Forsberg can continue to play at the level he has since the All-Star break -- and that is a big if, no question about it -- the Predators are now the critics' choice not just to emerge from an ultracompetitive Western Conference but to also win the team's first Stanley Cup.
"Arguably, has there ever been a better player traded at the deadline than Peter Forsberg?" Poile asked during a conference call Thursday following the confirmation of the deal.
The answer, he believes, and he may well be right, is an emphatic no.
It is a bold move that changes the balance of power in the West and might give the struggling franchise in Nashville the shot in the arm it needs to take hold for good in the community.
Forsberg, the oft-injured Swedish icon whose likeness once adorned a postal stamp in his native country, didn't come cheaply.
The Predators gave up winger Scottie Upshall, the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft who has never quite lived up to expectations in Nashville. He returned to action Jan. 30 after missing 2½ months with a groin strain. Highly touted defenseman Ryan Parent, the 18th overall pick in the 2005 draft, and first-round and third-round picks in this year's draft were also included in the deal.
Poile acknowledged that he was not entirely comfortable with the trade.
"I have given up a lot," he said. "We have built our team through the draft."
It marks the second year in a row that Poile has offered up his first-round pick. A season ago, he picked up veteran Brendan Witt from Washington in the hopes of adding toughness to his back end for the playoff run. But an injury to goalie Tomas Vokoun and a lack of size and toughness up front derailed the Preds' playoffs chances, and they were dispatched by San Jose in a five-game first-round series.
This season's move makes the Witt acquisition look like a schoolyard swap of hockey cards.
Forsberg, a two-time Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medal-winner, was the crown jewel of players available on the market leading into the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Poile said he'd been on the phone with Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren at least once a day for the past couple of weeks working on the deal.
True enough, Forsberg, 33, has been plagued by foot and attendant groin problems for much of the season. But since the All-Star break, he has 12 points in nine games. He'll be an unrestricted free agent and might have already agreed, in principle, to a deal that would see him return to Philadelphia on July 1. That was the case last season with rent-a-players Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, who earned Stanley Cup rings in Carolina only to return to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, respectively, as free agents.
But in a league where parity rules, Poile's decisive move has positioned his club as the team to beat. Earlier this week, Poile acquired veteran defender Vitaly Vishnevski to support a young but talented blue-line corps. Up front, Poile signed free-agent center Jason Arnott in the offseason to give the Predators size down the middle. Now, Forsberg, one of the game's finest playmakers with a gritty streak, could be the final piece to the puzzle.
What is the ripple effect of the deal?
It was believed Detroit, the team that woke up Thursday morning one point behind Nashville, was also interested in Forsberg. Anaheim, in a dogfight with San Jose and Dallas for the Pacific Division crown, was also rumored to be intrigued if only as a pre-emptive strike against its conference foes. Although sources told ESPN.com that Forsberg had agreed to waive his no-trade clause only for a select few teams in the Western Conference, it's believed defending Cup champion Carolina was also in the mix.
The Nashville deal could force those West teams that will have to go through the Preds in the postseason to answer, whether it's in the form of players Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, Owen Nolan, Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel or others.
Regardless of which teams were truly interested and which teams were just kicking the Swedish tires, the Predators emerge with the one player on the market believed to be the one who can turn the tide in a game, a series, a playoff run. The former Hart Trophy winner is that kind of player, even with a gimpy foot.
And if there is an NHL town that could use a long playoff run, it's Nashville.
The Predators have been at the top of the standings for most of this season. Despite that -- and two straight playoff appearances in 2004 and 2006 -- the team has been crippled by a lack of support.
During the All-Star break, owner Craig Leipold was surprisingly candid, saying the Preds needed the local corporate community to step up as he tries to entice local ownership to share some of the burden. The team is also trying to move its season ticket sales from 8,600 to 10,000, a number that's still 2,000 short of its high-water level when it first entered the league in 1998.
"Being in the South, we need to have success in the playoffs," Poile said Thursday.
If the Forsberg move and a subsequent long playoff run don't motivate investors from the local community to step forward and buoy fan support in general, then it is safe to say the Predators' days in the Music City are numbered.
And how's this for a delicious bit of potential irony: Imagine a Stanley Cup finals between Pittsburgh and Nashville with a move to Kansas City in the offing for one of them?
If it turns out that Lord Stanley makes a visit to the legendary strip in downtown Nashville in mid-June, then credit the soft-spoken Poile for making it happen. If fate has other things in store for the Predators, then Poile can walk away with his head held high, knowing he didn't blink when it came time to make the bold move.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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