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A rising NHL power awaits Balsillie if Predators sale goes through

The co-CEO of Research In Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry handheld devices, briefly looked at buying Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins last winter and now looks poised to purchase the money-losing Nashville Predators, who had a franchise-high 110 points this season.

Predators owner Craig Leipold signed a letter of intent this week to sell the nine-year-old club to Balsillie for US$220 million. Leipold estimates he lost $70 million since the club began play in 1998-99.

What Balsillie stands to get on the ice, pending approval from the NHL board of governors, is a talented team that has yet to translate regular season success into a long run in the playoffs.

The exciting parts are Radulov, who had 37 points in 64 games as a rookie but is considered a potential 100-point player down the road, and young defencemen like Hamhuis, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.

And other than captain and top defenceman Kimmo Timonen, a potential unrestricted free agent this summer, general manager David Poile has most of his key pieces safely under contract for the coming seasons.

Goalie Tomas Vokoun is signed through 2010-11 on a $25-million, five-year deal and centre Jason Arnott for another four years on a $22.5 million contract.

Hamhuis and defenceman Marek Zidlicky are both signed through 2009-2010, while forward Steve Sullivan will make $3.2 million for another two seasons.

Entering the final year of their deals next season are forwards Jean-Pierre Dumont, Martin Erat and David Legwand, as well as back-up goalie Chris Mason.

The Predators are coming off their best season since they entered the NHL in 1998-99, with team highs in wins with 51 and goals scored with 272.

But they reached the playoffs the last three seasons only to bow out in the first round each time.

It was particularly bitter this year after boosting the lineup with star centre Peter Forsberg and defenceman Vitaly Vishnevski with late-season trades.

Both will be unrestricted free agents July 1 and neither is expected back next season.

The Predators must also decide whether to make an offer to Paul Kariya, their scoring leader this season with 76 points who was held to two assists in the playoff loss to San Jose.

Poile may opt to use the $4.5 million he paid Kariya to sign Timonen.

The Finnish defenceman earned $2.28 million last season, but the GM knows it will take a big raise to keep him. A comparable blue-liner like Ottawa's Wade Redden earned $6.5 million this season.

"He's been here all these years and is now clearly one of the best defencemen in the NHL - and he deserves to be paid like it," Poile told Nashville reporters recently.

Scott Hartnell, a 22-goal scorer this season and their top pick in the 2000 draft, also must be signed.

Poile has exercised contract options on head coach Barry Trotz and his staff for next season. Trotz, who has been behind the bench for every game in the team's short history, was named coach of the year by The Sporting News, which also named Poile executive of the year.

A bigger question is where all this talent will be playing in future. Balsillie is expected eventually to move to a new city, possibly in southern Ontario.

Under the team's lease agreement for its arena, the Gaylord Entertainment Centre, Balsillie can invoke an out-clause that says the team can move the following year if it averages fewer than 14,000 spectators per match.

The Predators averaged only 13,815 in paid attendance in 2006-07 and do not look to have captured the imagination of Tennessee fans or the corporate community.

Balsillie is reportedly looking at Hamilton or Kitchener/Waterloo, Ont., where his company Research In Motion in based, while the NHL is said to prefer that the next franchise move be to a new arena in Kansas City.


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