NASHVILLE – The Nashville Predators feel this season was the first step in what could be the start of something special.
The Predators lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they believe the experience gained by their young core of players forecasts a bright future. Nashville finished second in the Central Division to qualify for the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
"Through the year and along the way, I think we did a lot of good things," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Tuesday. "Certainly our regular season, we finished sixth overall in the National Hockey League. Inside of that, there's always highs and lows, but if you look at it and package it into an 82-game season, certainly that's an accomplishment."
Nashville got off to a fast start and was atop the NHL standings 60 games into the season. The final 21 games didn't go as smoothly; the Predators finished 6-12-3 but didn't feel like they were playing bad hockey.
"At one point, two-thirds of the way through the year, we were maybe six or seven points in front of everybody in the League," Laviolette said. "I don't think that the last 20 games was a complete reflection of our team not playing well.
"There were certainly some games where sometimes I've seen and I've experienced, and I look around to other teams who are out in front and not playing some games maybe as they should've or as they had in the past in order to be successful. Of the 11 or 12 games that we lost in regulation, when we played and went to a shootout and went to a breakaway skill, I like the way we played. We lost the breakaway skill."
The Predators have a young, talented defense led by Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Seth Jones is 20 years old, and Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis each had the best season of his career. There is a lot of anticipation in the Predators dressing room about what's to come.
"A lot of excitement," forward James Neal said. "We've got a really good group of guys here. Everyone bought in, and you obviously saw what we did throughout the year, so it's going to be a fun group going forward."
Perhaps the most encouraging sign of Nashville's future is the play of rookie forward Filip Forsberg. His 26 goals and 63 points led the Predators in the regular season, and he led them in points (six) in the playoffs.
Forsberg is 20 years old and already one of the most dynamic forwards the Predators have ever had. His teammates are excited about his potential.
"It's really limitless," Weber said. "You see the talent level. It's ridiculous. Some of the things he does in practice, you're like, 'Wow, I could never even think about doing stuff like that.' And he's just like naturally that good, to be that young. Same with a lot of guys on our team that are young and good. It's exciting to think what they're going to be able to do in a few more years."
Re-signing center Mike Ribeiro, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, likely will be one of the Predators' top priorities in the offseason. Ribeiro's 62 points were second on the Predators, and his 47 assists were 13th in the League.
Forsberg would like to play with Ribeiro again next season.
"It would be huge," Forsberg said. "He's had a huge part in my success and especially in the team success. To get him back in the lineup for next year would be awesome. I really hope we can get that done."
Center Mike Fisher can also become an unrestricted free agent. He said he wants to remain with the Predators.
"That's the hope, for sure," Fisher said. "I love the city and being here part of this group. It's something that'll have to be worked out here in the next little bit, but I'm pretty confident that something will get done and that I'll be back."
Predators general manager David Poile acquired defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli from the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. The Predators were the best team in the League at the time of the trade but fell off soon after. Poile said he wished the trade would have worked out a little better.
"I think to be very honest, the fact that Franson was a right-handed shot and the lefty-righty all year was working really good for us," Poile said. "The righty-righty thing, not making an excuse, but it wasn't the perfect situation for Franson or for us.
"I think when Shea went down and Franson got in there, and then he got to play in a lefty-righty situation, I think he played a lot better. Our defense was very good this year, and I think in the playoffs he played better than he did maybe sometimes in the regular season. It wasn't a perfect fit to be very honest."