Predators’ future considerably bright, despite early playoff exit

The seasonal high point for the young and talented Predators occurred in mid-February, when Nashville had a six-point advantage over every other NHL club.

Don McPeak/Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Nashville Predators’ most promising season in a decade had an unsatisfactory finish, but it was definitely one that can propel the Music City into a new era of hockey.

The Game 6 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks — Nashville’s third one-goal defeat of the first-round series — was a devastating blow to a roster that dreamed of a long playoff run.

"I’ve been thinking about those two OT games, the last sixth game, just thinking over and over again about the last goal," said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne.

"The margin is so small. I think it was a good matchup between us. They seem to always not panic, and they have a lot of experience. It easily could have gone either way. It was a great series. One of the more fun series I’ve ever been a part of.

"It’s always so sad how it ends. You play a long season and all of a sudden you’re in exit meetings and it feels kind of surreal. Looking back, it’s a huge season for us. I think our future looks good with our young players. You got to be happy with the season we had, overall."

When surveying the Predators’ roster, their future prospects are most certainly bright.

At least 11 players who collected ice time for Nashville finished the season at 25 years or younger. Building blocks like Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Filip Forsberg — just to name a few — took major strides and helped transform the Predators into one of the league’s most exciting offenses.

"We have a really young team and a lot of guys played their first playoffs," said defenseman Roman Josi. "I thought we played some good hockey in our playoff series. It’s definitely good going forward. We know we have a young team and we can play against the best teams."

The youth movement doesn’t just revolve around Nashville’s forwards, but also their defense corp — which could be the most skilled across the league.

"This whole year, you look at our whole defense corp," said captain Shea Weber. "All of those young guys: Seth, Ellis, Ekholm, Josi. All of these guys that have stepped up and really elevated their games. It’s exciting that they are 23 and Jones is 20, you look at the age of these guys and it’s just like they’re going to keep getting better.

"That’s something we shouldn’t have to touch. I think we could compete with some of the best [defensive] corps in the league. We’ve got a great group that’s very mobile and skilled and can play physical as well. That’s definitely good to know, but at the same time we can’t take a step backwards and set ourselves in a position where we don’t want to be next year."

Losing Weber after Game 2 could be looked at as one of the key reasons the Predators failed to advance past the first round. As close as the two clubs were during the series, Weber’s absence didn’t seem to hinder Nashville’s odds of advancing.

In fact — outside of Game 3 — the young defensive unit flexed their muscles against one of the most elite rosters in the league, and came out fairly unscathed.

"I think we played good," said defenseman Mattias Ekholm. "We didn’t give up a whole lot. We’re all young. A lot of us it’s our first playoffs. Still, we’re there. It was so close every game.

"From a defensive point of view, we played good. Shea is probably one of the top five defensemen in the world. It’s always going to be tough to replace him. Jones stepped up there and did a good job. I think we handled it pretty good."

Back in mid-February, Nashville led the NHL in total points. But things slowly dissipated after that for the young Predators.

"In the first 60 [games], we really didn’t stumble at all; and then all of a sudden we found a little bit of adversity and tried to work our way through it," said forward Mike Fisher. "I think sometimes younger teams have a harder time fighting through that. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It wasn’t the way we wanted to finish out."

Empty feelings aside, in lieu of the Predators clearing out their lockers on Monday, the season-ending defeat might be beneficial in the long run.

Yes, winning a Stanley Cup would easily have landed Nashville in the upper echelon of teams for the foreseeable future. However, the Predators may already be on that path, regardless.

The core group of offensive players will likely return next year, with Fisher and Ribeiro working for possible extensions and Wilson along with Smith doing the same as restricted free agents.

Defensively, the only piece that could need to be address is the likely absence of Anton Volchenkov — which Nashville adjusted to without his presence later in the season.

This doesn’t begin to mention players like Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, Steve Moses, Pontus Åberg, Miikka Salomaki, Colton Sissons, Jonathan-Ismael Diaby and many more players just itching for a chance to crack Nashville’s lineup — many of whom could have a spot within the next season or two.

Was it a disappointing end to the season for the Predators? Sure. Peter Laviolette’s group, though, is just beginning.

Don’t expect the same type of disappointment next year.

"Any time you don’t win and you really believe you have a chance to win, it’s disappointing. It’s a disappointing season, there’s no question," said Fisher.

"Our expectations here were very high. Even to not make the playoffs the last few years, we felt like — especially midway through the year — we could beat any team. Any time that doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed and look to ways to what you could have done better.

"There are obviously a lot of positives that came out of the season and the progress we made. A lot of guys had good seasons. This group is still young and is only going to get better. That excites me and what the future can hold here. It’s only going to get better."