NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Nashville Predators can console themselves knowing they aggressively made moves in an all-out effort to win the Stanley Cup. Now they will spend the off-season finding out just how costly those decisions will be after coming up short in the Western Conference semifinals for a second straight year.
The Predators lost 2-1 to Phoenix on Monday night and dropped the semifinals in five games—a game less than a year ago when they lost to eventual Western champ Vancouver.
"We had high expectations as an organization, but we didn't get it done," coach Barry Trotz said after the loss. "The teams that made the playoffs in the West, everyone had a legitimate chance to represent the West and win the Cup. There are no poor hockey teams this year. That is parity. That is the NHL."
The Predators showed their commitment to winning by sending a second-round pick in June's draft and young forward Blake Geoffrion to Montreal in February for defenceman Hal Gill, and they followed that at the trade deadline by sending this year's first-round pick to Buffalo for centre Paul Gaustad.
The moves helped a roster that started the season as the NHL's youngest roster and a group that remained the league's second-youngest coming out of the All-Star break. Nashville also welcomed back wayward forward Alexander Radulov in March, four years after he bolted back home to Russia to the Kontinental Hockey League.
All the trades resulted in Nashville finishing with 104 points, the third-highest in franchise history. The Predators grabbed the No. 4 seed and finished ahead of Detroit in the final standings. They also beat the Red Wings in the playoffs all for the first time, which made the quick loss to the Coyotes that much more stunning.
"It is tough to swallow," said goalie Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist. "When you lose a series, it goes by so fast. It is over even before you realize it. It is hard to realize right now. We played a lot of good hockey this year, and now it is done."
The Predators thought the path to the cup was wide open with Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver and San Jose all gone. Those teams all had ousted Nashville in the post-season.
Instead, the NHL's best power-play unit in the regular season fizzled in the post-season. They went 0 of 23 on home ice, and they never could solve Phoenix goalie Mike Smith or the Coyotes, who simply beat the Predators at the defensive, grinding style they've used since hitting the ice in 1998.
"We're past the expansion stage, we're past that, and you've got to go through these hard lessons sometimes," Trotz said.
"Chemistry is a delicate thing. As I say, sometimes you can add skill or talent and all that. Does it come together at the right time? Or does it not come together at the right time? You can be a chemistry professor all you want, but you're dealing with human beings and the human factor on both sides."
Now the Predators have tough decisions ahead. The roster features seven restricted free agents including Weber, who played on a $7.5 million arbitrator's award this season, and defenceman Ryan Suter is among eight unrestricted players.
The only regulars under contract include Martin Erat, Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist and Rinne, who signed a seven-year, $49 million contracted in November. The head of the ownership group said then the team has the money to re-sign captain Shea Weber and Suter. The Predators will have a chance to hold onto Weber for another season but have not been able to sign Suter to a new deal yet.
Suter said after the loss that he had not thought about the off-season yet or whether he would be back next season with the team that drafted him in 2003.
"The group of guys we had here is a great group of guys," Suter said. "It's too bad we couldn't do anything with it. It's very disappointing."
Trotz has been heavily criticized since scratching Radulov and Kostitsyn for Game 4, a 1-0 loss to Phoenix, and extending their punishment of a one-game suspension for violating team rules with an apparent curfew violation before Game 2 in Arizona. He has refused to second-guess his decision.
Whether the late roster moves or the punishment of Radulov and Kostitsyn affected chemistry has been another big question. Weber said he thought they had a great group in the locker room, just as good as the past.
"We didn't accomplish what we thought we could have, and it is due in part to a great team here in Phoenix," Weber said.