Entering the 2012 NHL playoffs, the Nashville Predators were considered one of the favorites to contend for the Stanley Cup.
With Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne in goal, a blueline anchored by all-stars Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and an offense bolstered by late-season additions Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, the Predators finished fourth overall in the Western Conference and rolled to a five-game, first round series victory over the veteran-laden Detroit Red Wings.
But against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Predators foundered and were eliminated from the second round in only five games.
The biggest reason the Predators faltered was Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith limited them to only nine goals in the series, six of which came in the first two games.
It was clear Smith had gotten inside the heads of the Predators, especially in Game 4 when they missed several wide-open nets.
The Predators got away from their usually disciplined defensive game, largely due to what David Climer of The Tennessean described as the “tough, relentless hockey” of the Coyotes.
Radulov and Kostitsyn also created a distraction by skipping curfew following Game 2. As per team rules, the two were suspended for Game 3.
While that was undoubtedly a problem, it would be unfair to blame the Predators demise on those two, especially considering the team won Game 3 without them.
Radulov and Kostitsyn make convenient scapegoats for unhappy Nashville fans, but if they’re considered the main reasons for the Predators’ early exit, this club wasn’t the tight unit we’d been led to believe it was.
As the Predators disperse for the off-season, team management faces some major roster decisions.
Eight players – forwards Kostitsyn, Paul Gaustad, Jordin Tootoo, Brandon Yip and Brian McGrattan, along with defensemen Ryan Suter, Hal Gill and Francis Bouillon – are eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Seven others – goaltender Anders Lindback, defensemen Shea Weber and Jack Hillen and forwards Radulov, Sergei Kostitsyn and Colin Wilson – will become restricted free agents.
As ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun observed, the biggest concern is the futures of Weber and Suter, who understandably declined to discuss their plans immediately following Monday’s loss to the Coyotes.
Predators GM David Poile has more than $32.2 million committed to 12 players for next season. Assuming the cap ceiling remains around $64 million next season, he’d have plenty of space to re-sign Weber and Suter as well as retain other key players or replace those who depart via free agency.
The Predators usually spend much less than the cap ceiling (this season’s payroll was a little more than $52 million), but team chairman and alternate governor Thomas Cigarran claimed Nashville would pay to retain its top players.
Money might not be the most significant factor for Weber and Suter. It could come down to whether or not they believe their best opportunity to win a championship is in Nashville.
Weber’s contentious contract negotiations last summer fuelled speculation he’d be traded this off-season if he doesn’t sign a long-term extension with the team. He’s on a one-year, arbiter-awarded contract worth $7.5 million this season and will likely seek the same amount on a multi-year deal.
Poile took Weber to arbitration last summer in part to prevent him from receiving an offer sheet from a rival club. However, he cannot employ that tactic again, raising the possibility the Predators captain will receive an expensive offer sheet.
But offer sheets have been a largely empty threat in recent years and with a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, it’s doubtful Weber will get one this summer.
Of greater concern is Suter, who can test the UFA market July 1, where he’d be the best defenseman available. The Red Wings are among the clubs expected to target him.
Given the controversy surrounding Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, neither is expected to return. Kostitsyn can walk via unrestricted free agency, as could Radulov if Poile decides not to qualify his rights.
The Predators GM could qualify Radulov and then try and trade him, which seems to be more likely than just letting him walk. The 25-year-old right winger may still return to the Kontinental League, where he spent the past four seasons.
Another player of interest is backup goalie Lindback, who many observers believe is poised to become an NHL starter, but won’t get that opportunity in Nashville. Plenty of teams are in need of a goalie and would come calling if Lindback was available.
Having fallen short of expectations this year, it’s now up to Predators ownership and management to determine if they can not only retain their best players, but find the talent necessary to build up for another shot at a Cup run next season.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.