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Predators look like team on rise despite Cup Final disappointment

Young core, effective goaltending make for bright future in Nashville

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

NASHVILLE -- Next season was a difficult concept for the Nashville Predators to think about Sunday.

This season had just ended with a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, and no one could blame them for not wanting to look ahead to anything other than a good rest. But in sifting through their disappointment, there will be some lessons they can learn and also motivation they can channel next season.

"We've got to let this sink in and embrace it," defenseman P.K. Subban said. "For our hockey club right now, the bright spot is that we've got a young team. There's some guys who will never feel this feeling again. Let's hope that the next feeling that we have is raising the Cup over our head and being Stanley Cup champions."

That's always the goal, and after having gone further into Stanley Cup Playoffs than ever before -- captain Mike Fisher was the only Predators player with previous experience in the Final -- they now have a much better idea of how hard it is to get there. Getting back to the Final, and winning, will be even harder.

The Predators need only to look to the Penguins to see that. Winning the Stanley Cup last season wasn't easy. Getting back to the Final and becoming the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 was a far more difficult ride because of the injuries and adversity they had to overcome.

It's impossible to predict what obstacles lie ahead for the Predators, but they should be contenders again next season mainly because of their defensemen. They have arguably the best top-four defense in the League with Ryan Ellis (age 26), Roman Josi (27), Mattias Ekholm (27), and Subban (28) all in their prime.

The Predators also have some talented young forwards, including Filip Forsberg (22), Victor Arvidsson (24), Ryan Johansen (24), and Kevin Fiala (20). Injuries to Johansen (left thigh surgery) and Fiala (fractured left femur) during the playoffs tested the Predators' depth but provided opportunities for others such as forwards Colton Sissons (23), Pontus Aberg (23), and Frederick Gaudreau (24) to gain valuable experience.

The Predators probably will need to upgrade their offense to take the next step after they were shut out in the last two games of the Final against the banged-up Penguins' defense. The Predators have been set in goal for a while with Pekka Rinne, but he will turn 35 on Nov. 3, so his window is beginning to close.

Rinne seemed to acknowledge that Sunday by saying he viewed the Predators' run to the Stanley Cup Final as "a once in a lifetime opportunity." Rinne has two more seasons left on his contract, so he will remain an important piece for the Predators. But it's likely he'll begin sharing more of the workload with 22-year-old backup Juuse Saros.

"I'm just so proud of these guys," Rinne said. "It's a special group of guys. Obviously it feels wrong right now. It's tough to accept. But we played against a really good team. I thought throughout the playoffs we played a really good four rounds and I feel like we can be proud of ourselves."

Most of the Predators core will remain intact, but Fisher's future is uncertain. The 37-year-old center can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Fisher is a valued leader in the locker room, as evidenced by the fact he was named captain after defenseman Shea Weber was traded June 29. Partly because he is married to country music star Carrie Underwood, he also has become a part of the face of hockey in Nashville during his seven seasons with the Predators. It's a role he seems to have embraced.

"If you really think about it, we've got a lot to be grateful for in the run and the city," Fisher said. "I don't think the League has seen anything like this city and what we were able to be a part of as players and the support we've gotten and the journey. It's tough coming to an end like that, but the guys never gave up, played so hard through lots of types of adversity. You know what? We've got a lot to be proud of and we're grateful for the journey."

There's work to be done to do build on their success next season, but understandably that wasn't something the Predators were ready to think about Sunday.

"That's probably a conversation for a different day," coach Peter Laviolette said. "When you talk about building off of something, you don't get to this point without investing an awful lot, as individuals, as a team, and your personal life. There's a big investment that goes to getting to this point. So to just move forward and talk about what can be in the future is difficult when you're still sitting in the game and in the present of today."

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