No team sets out at the beginning of a season with the goal of only making it to the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Nashville Predators didn’t fully accomplish what they had in mind during the 2015-16 run, but as the team gathered for one final time on Saturday afternoon to clean out their lockers at Bridgestone Arena and hold exit meetings, Preds players exuded some different emotions.
Of course there was disappointment after falling in Game Seven two days ago, but as the summer break begins earlier than they’d hoped, there was also a sense of optimism and promise for what’s to come.
“I might take a little bit of time to continue to look back, but I think we showed some really good signs,” center Mike Fisher said. “I look at the run and how much fun we had while it lasted; the city, the fans were unbelievable.
“We came back, we fought, we gave it everything we had, and it just wasn’t enough. Hopefully we’re not judged just based on the last game, but as a whole you look back and there’s a lot of things we can be proud of.”
The veteran players like Fisher, Captain Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne will undoubtedly continue to play key roles for club in the coming seasons. But it’s those same veterans who are excited for the future due to the next wave, players like Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg, who are only going to get better with time.
“I think our future looks good,” Rinne said. “We still have a good core group of guys and a lot of young players who really made a name for themselves this year. I think that a lot of guys stepped up, guys like [Miikka] Salomaki and [Calle] Jarnkrok had a great year, and obviously [Forsberg] is one of our top players already. We have a lot of good, young players.”
“You just see the youth is starting to step up, guys are playing bigger roles, and that’s exciting because we have some good, young talent,” Weber said. “I think that’s exciting, and with another year of hard work from them and everybody, it should be a better year next year.”
The postseason experience will also benefit the Preds in due time. After last year’s exit in Round One to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, to this season’s run, which included two Game Sevens, the group believes they’re now better for what they’ve experienced together.
“Just to get that feeling of winning a series, beating a team; I think everyone is going to benefit from that, just from a winning standpoint to get that feeling,” defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “Next year, we aren’t going to be satisfied with the First Round or second Round. We want to go deeper, and I think that hunger, when you get that taste of a deeper run, it’s going to be even more motivating for next year.”
Winger James Neal, who has experienced playoff success in both Pittsburgh and now Nashville, also sees promise in the group moving forward.
“I think we have a great mix [of players],” Neal said. “I think you saw that we have good leadership, good younger guys, and you saw that in the playoffs. We’re really close, and it was a tough way to end [the season], but we’re right there.
“I think we did everything to put ourselves in a good position to win, and it was tough the way it ended, but I think you gain experience from that. So when it happens again, we’ll be ready.”
The Predators would prefer to be preparing for the Western Conference Final, but that’s just not how things worked out this time around. However, there’s reason to believe Nashville will continue making noise well into the springtime for years to come.
“You also look at the positive things you do as a group, for all of us to really look at our hockey club here and know how close we are,” Johansen said. “I think that’s something we’ll take into this offseason and bring with us next year and have confidence knowing how close we were and what it takes to take the next step as an organization.
“I had high expectations for us this year, and I thought it was a club that could go all the way. For next year, that standard is going to be even higher… It’s going to be important to have a good summer and stay healthy, be ready to go and just get off to a good start. It’s [tough] having to think about that stuff right now, knowing that it’s still going on, but it is what it is. We’re going to be back.”