NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Last summer, Predators general manager David Poile had to strip several key players off his team to save money on salary. This year the team has new ownership committed to keeping Nashville's young talent from leaving.
Want proof? Start with the seven-year, $31.5 million contract handed out to forward Martin Erat in the longest and most expensive deal yet for this franchise.
``A year ago at this time, I didn't know whether to take a step forward or two steps backward,'' Poile said Friday.
``This is certainly a lot more fun. It's certainly a lot more motivational. I think again we're going to start putting the Predators and Nashville back on the map.''
Last offseason, Poile was forced to trade goaltender Tomas Vokoun to Florida and send captain and top defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell to Philadelphia. He watched Paul Kariya leave as a free agent and Peter Forsberg head off as well.
A sale finally transferred the team from Craig Leipold, who turned around and bought the Minnesota Wild, and the new owners understand the need to spend money to keep their own talent.
The spending started in December with a six-year, $27 million deal for forward David Legwand, the team's first draft pick in 1998. Then they signed forward J.P. Dumont to a four-year, $16 million deal in February and announced their latest contract Monday with Poile and Erat both at the World Championships.
Poile jokingly gulped when asked about the biggest contract he's ever given out.
``Hopefully, we're choosing really good hockey players, but equally if not more important, hopefully we're choosing the right people,'' he said. ``If we do, and we have, I think we'll be successful.''
Erat matched his career high with 57 points this season. The seventh-round draft pick had a career best six game-winning goals and had his first hat trick on March 4.
``When I heard the seven years, I was like, `Wow!' Erat said. ``It's a long time, but I'm 26 years old, and I'm in my prime right now and I just want to get better. ... I just want to get better and push this team to a playoffs, and not just stop in the first round every year.''
He led all Nashville forwards in average ice time last season, and the native of the Czech Republic served as an alternate captain at times this season including the final 20 games of the regular season and all six playoff games in a first-round loss to Detroit. He also is only the third Predators' draft pick to play in 400 games.
Erat credited playing with Kariya for two seasons and with Forsberg at the end of the 2006-07 season for helping him improve and push himself as a professional.
``Every day Paul, when I came in like 9 o'clock, he was there before me. I came 8:30, he was there,'' Erat said.
Nashville also has captain and center Jason Arnott signed for three more years. Poile said he consults daily with David Freeman, chairman of the new ownership group, and credits the new owners with understanding the need for stability in a franchise that endured so much uncertainty over the past year.
Smart spending and good drafts will be the keys for a franchise that has reached the playoffs four straight years but hasn't advanced past the first round.
``This is just a reflection of executing the game plan and getting a contract ... long-term with the players that will make us competitive and keep us competitive for a long time to come,'' Poile said.

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