The Nashville Predators feel this season was the first step in what could be the start of something special.
Nashville lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs but believes the experience gained by its young core of players will lead to a bright future. The Predators (47-25-10) finished second in the Central Division, made the playoffs after missing it the previous two seasons and have a foundation to build on for next season.
"Through the year and along the way, I think we did a lot of good things," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "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 in their final 21 games 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 lot to look forward to next season. They have a young, talented defense led by Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Seth Jones is 20 years old, and Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis had career seasons. There is a lot of anticipation in the Predators locker 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. He led the Predators with 26 goals and 63 points in the regular season and was their top point producer in the playoffs.
Forsberg is 20 years old and already one of the most dynamic forwards the Predators have ever had. The players are excited about his potential over the next few seasons.
"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 will be an unrestricted free agent, will be one of the main priorities for Nashville in the offseason. Ribeiro finished second on the Predators in scoring with 62 points and his 47 assists were 13th in the League. Ribeiro was also a big part of Forsberg's breakout year and 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 will also be an unrestricted free agent and said that 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."
Author: Robby Stanley | NHL.com Correspondent