NASHVILLE - The Nashville Predators feel they took another step this season in learning what it takes to win and be successful in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Predators had an inconsistent regular season but found their game in the second half. They defeated the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round in seven games and lost in the second round to the San Jose Sharks in seven games.
Much of Nashville's young core has now been to the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, gaining valuable experience. Nashville's veteran group, led by defenseman Shea Weber, goaltender Pekka Rinne and forward Mike Fisher, has lots of playoff experience.
The players feel like they are continuing to build in the right direction and have the right mix of veterans and youth.
"Just how big it was this year to make it to the second round," 25-year-old Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "Just to get that feeling of winning a series, beating a team. I think everyone is going to benefit from that from a winning standpoint, just to get that feeling. Next year we're not going to be satisfied with the first round or second round. We want to go deeper. I think that hunger and when you get a taste of a deeper run, it's just going to be even more motivating for next year."
WHAT THEY SAID: "I think the youth is starting to step up. Guys are playing bigger roles, and that's exciting because we have some good young talent and guys that can grasp bigger roles and be a bigger part and make a bigger difference. I think that's exciting, and with another year of hard work from them and everybody, it should be a better year next year." -- Weber
Video: Weber, Josi and Johansen discuss the season's end
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can Rinne continue to play at a high level?
The Predators' window of opportunity to make a run for the Stanley Cup in the next few years depends largely on Rinne's play. The 33-year-old had an up-and-down regular season and wants to be more consistent next season.
"I'm personally happy how the season ended for me," Rinne said. "I thought that I played my best hockey in [the] playoffs. I was able to raise my level of game and the way I played. Obviously going into this summer, I want to prepare myself and be better than ever before and come back strong and ready to go right away in the beginning of the season.
"It was a lot of ups and downs personally. I wanted to be better during the regular season. I always have high expectations for myself. I thought that it was hard to get consistency going on throughout the season. I feel like I had a lot of good games but then would follow with an average game or something like that. It was frustrating at times. My goal is to raise my level of game where I need it to be and where I want it to be."
Video: Rinne, Fisher, Forsberg and Smith's exit interviews
INJURIES: The Predators had several players who were playing through injuries throughout the playoffs. Forward Craig Smith had a lower-body injury that he sustained in Game 3 against Anaheim in the first round, but he did not specify what the injury was.
Forward Filip Forsberg acknowledged he was playing through a back injury. He was held to one goal in the second round against the Sharks and had two goals and two assists in 14 playoff games.
Defenseman Roman Josi was playing with a broken finger and a broken nose. He said he sustained the injury to his finger before the playoffs began, and that he injured his nose during the playoffs.
WHO COULD GO: Predators goaltender Carter Hutton and forward Paul Gaustad will be unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Gaustad's role of fourth-line center could be filled by younger forwards, perhaps 22-year-old Colton Sissons, who did an adequate job at center.
Hutton played well when he was used this season but might try to find a place that gives him an opportunity to play more.
Forward Eric Nystrom has one year remaining on his contract but was used sparingly in the final few games of the regular season and played one game in the playoffs. The Predators could try to buy him out or look for a trade.
Video: Neal, Ekholm and Wilson talk about the season's end
BIGGEST NEED(S): The Predators aren't far from being a Stanley Cup contender, but they could add more scoring forward depth. Forwards Kevin Fiala and Vladislav Kamenev of Milwaukee of the American Hockey League could get a chance to make Nashville out of training camp.
The Predators might also target a veteran to play on their third defense pairing.
2016 DRAFT PICKS: Nashville has one pick in each of the seven rounds of the 2016 NHL Draft, starting with No. 17.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The Predators have lots of young talent, in their group of forwards and on defense. They will have a full season of Ryan Johansen as their No. 1 center, and Forsberg could be even better than he was this season when he scored 33 goals.
"They're huge parts of the team that have done a great job," Fisher said. "Lots of guys came in and played really well and played well in the playoffs for us. Those guys, through this experience, are only going to get better and better."