I imagine everyone all of yesterday was a bundle of nerves and excitement. Game 7’s tend to do that. Game 7’s with implications the likes of which the Nashville Predators have never seen before just made it that much more intense. It would have been the first time in franchise history that the Predators made it to the Western Conference Finals. It would have been if not for laying an egg.
The Predators weren’t just beaten by the San Jose Sharks in last night’s Game 7 encounter they were soundly beaten. From the word “GO” the Sharks played at breakneck speed, flustered the Predators, created various mistakes, and seemingly punished ever mistake committed. It was bad. It was bad enough to make the very calm and cool Pekka Rinne snap and do this when he knew the hook, that he never deserved, was coming. The Sharks won 5-0 to advance to the Western Conference Finals where they will be playing against the St. Louis Blues for a chance to meet either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Tampa Bay Lightning in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals. The Predators off-season officially begins today.
It all hurts. It all hurts very bad and seeing existential comments made from Rinne after last night’s game doesn’t make it feel any better. Yet, similar to what had been an incredible regular season for the Milwaukee Admirals, one game or one series shouldn’t detract from the whole of a campaign that the team put together. Not many “experts” really had the Predators getting to far in these playoffs. The Predators proved a great deal of them wrong and were on the brink of the franchise’s first appearance in the Western Conference Finals. That’s a tremendous accomplishment. What should be lifting your spirits though is something I feel might be getting lost in all the immediate doom and gloom of a playoff exit. This really wasn’t the end for the Predators. This is really more of a sign of things to come.
It wasn’t that long ago when the Predators missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. While there have been some pretty good changes here and there the core of who the Predators are has remained the same since the bulk of those seasons into last night’s game. Out stepped Barry Trotz. In stepped Peter Laviolette and the return of playoff hockey and, more specifically, the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Last season the Predators ran into the buzzsaw of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. This season the Predators battle through the Anaheim Ducks in a seven-game series before falling to the Sharks, once again, in a seven-game series. The final game to the Predators 2015-16 season was a clunker, yes, but the fight and pushes made resulted in the deepest playoff run in franchise history.
There are question marks made now. Certainly after last night’s game some will be looking at Shea Weber and pondering if the captain, who will be 31-years old at the start of next season, might be getting up there in age to be shouldering as much of the work load that he does. Rinne will turn 34-years old come the opening months of the 2016-17 season and his contract comes up at the end of the 2018-19 season. How much more magic does he have in the gas tank? With Colin Wilson putting together a great playoff run, after a rough regular season, is this off-season the right time to trade him with his value on the up? Filip Forsberg, Calle Järnkrok, and Ryan Johansen are worthy of long-term contracts. How do they fit in with the financial landscape of the organization? With players such as Carter Hutton, Petter Granberg, Cody Bass, Gabriel Bourque, and Paul Gaustad all set to become free agents who stays and who goes? That same question cane be given to: Marek Mazanec, Stefan Elliott, Corey Potter, Taylor Aronson, Patrick Mullen, Jamie Devane, and Max Reinhart at the AHL level. There are plenty of moving parts in play, options of keeping certain pieces that worked, dropping others that didn’t, and strengthening what was already a very strong all-around 2015-16 for the entire organization.
What is perhaps most important aren’t those question marks but rather the known knowns. The Predators are still a very young team and a team with plenty of upside that has it staying very young. Two players that probably speak best to just that were featured players late in the Predators playoff run in Viktor Arvidsson and Anthony Bitetto. Arvidsson by this point has done enough for most general fans in Nashville to see what he’s capable of from a sheer work rate standpoint. His motor is incredible and his work ethic isn’t limited to one-side of the puck, either. This was his second season coming to grips with the North American pro game. It was his first understanding the pace and quality of the NHL game. He hasn’t yet shown his sniper-like abilities that he displayed a season ago with the Admirals when he walloped 22 goals. He just turned 23-years old. There is far more to come. Bitetto had his cuppa coffee in the big time last season but this past year, aside from the conditioning assignment that allowed for the great feature photo that you see up top, was spent at the NHL level. Much of what I’ve watched of Bitetto hasn’t looked like the Bitetto I saw play in Milwaukee. That is until you watched him play Game 7 against the Sharks where he is actively swooping around and letting his escapability with the puck be seen while delivering a no-nonsense defensive game. Bitetto never seems to stop improving his game. If this past season with the Predators is anything to go by I expect him to make like his jump from the 2012-13 season into the 2013-14 season. He went from splitting AHL/ECHL time to really sharpening his skills, improving his off-ice fitness, and seeing the on-ice results in 2013-14 with a surging year where confidence flowed from him.
Elsewhere there are other signs similar to this. Miikka Salomäki just stamped down his first full-season in the NHL and he hasn’t yet shown his knack for scoring just yet. Similar story to Arvidsson and similar age, 23-years old. Colton Sissons is a natural leader with strong two-way ability. He split this past season between the AHL (38 games) and NHL (34 games). If he gets the chance to play for the Predators consistently next he should really start showing more of what fans in Milwaukee have come to know him for. Also, Sissons was voted by his teammates to be the alternate captain of the Admirals in 2014-15 at the age of 20. He was voted by his teammates to be team captain of the Admirals in 2015-16 at the age of 21. He is 22-years old today and seems primed at some point to take the role Mike Fisher holds today. Oh, that Filip Forsberg kid. Remember him? Yeah, he’s a kid still at 21-years old. He’s spent the past two-seasons playing every single game of the regular season and scored 127 points (59 goals, 68 assists) in that time. Those other stud defensemen by the name of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm are all just 25-years old.
The short of it: everyone on the Predators are still pretty darn young with a capacity to keep getting better. Experience the likes of which these past two playoff runs have provided are invaluable in the growth of these young players to take further steps forward in the coming years.
Speaking of which, the next coming years for the Predators are in equally good hands thanks to solid drafting and developing. Of all those names mentioned up top not once did I bring up players such as: Kevin Fiala, Vladislav Kamenev, Yakov Trenin, Juuse Saros, or Pontus Åberg. There is a kid out there named Justin Kirkland who, if signed to an entry level contract this off-season, could instantly be an impact player in the organization learning the pro game in Milwaukee before transitioning up to Nashville. I don’t care who is at fault in the Jimmy Vesey saga anymore but, whoever it was, I’d like to thank them for allowing the Predators and their savvy scouting department to actually have a first round draft pick this season. In due time, perhaps look at that draft selection versus Vesey and see who gets on better? Worries over Weber’s game last night still in your mind? Well someone like Jack Dougherty is in the pro game now, he turns 20-years old later this month, and can develop to be yet another solid weapon for the already loaded Predators blueline. Trevor Murphy just cranked out his first pro-season at the age of 20 and the more I think about him the more I think about another Predators defenseman who played for the Windsor Spitfires. Not the biggest guy on the ice but a shot that will make you promptly ignore that.
Was the ending to the 2015-16 season tough? Yes. The Predators didn’t win a Stanley Cup. The Admirals didn’t win the Calder Cup. And the Cincinnati Cyclones didn’t win the Kelly Cup. Was 2015-16 a failure? No. And, over the next few years, it might prove to have been just what everyone needed.
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