Predators faced with tough questions
Out in the second round against the Phoenix Coyotes? Not how they had envisioned their season ending. Not by a long shot.
"It's very disappointing. It's very disappointing," Nashville Predators GM David Poile told ESPN.com, while making sure to give the Phoenix Coyotes the utmost respect for a series win he felt they certainly deserved.
A critical seasom in the history of the Predators ends in thorough disappointment and invites more questions than answers about their future.
Have Weber and Ryan Suter played their last game as Predators?
Will the Predators bring back Alexander Radulov? Does the KHL import even want to stay?
And the most important question of all: Did the Predators add too many players -- or the wrong players -- late in the season to a roster that was already humming along?
Make no mistake about it, the more talented team did not win this second-round series. But the more committed team definitely did.
The Coyotes are howling their way to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, and while the Los Angeles Kings are the clear favorites after knocking off the top two seeds, the Blackhawks and Predators found out the hard way that the plucky, rope-a-dope desert dogs have a bite as dangerous as their bark.
Mike Smith reinforced his Conn Smythe candidancy with a second straight pearl of a series. He is simply unreal.
"Mike Smith was the MVP by far -- by far," Poile said. "He was the difference."
But it runs deeper than the league's hottest goalie. The Coyotes, led by inspiring coach Dave Tippett and a roster unified under captain Shane Doan, play as a team like few others in the NHL. They put on their hard hats and go to work with their lunch bucket in hand. They have to just to survive. It's the epitome of teamwork and commitment, on and off the ice, and it's why they're in the conference finals.
Let's put it this way, only one team had to discipline a pair of knuckleheads for breaking team curfew on the eve of Game 2. And it wasn't the Coyotes.
A second-round exit to the Coyotes was not the way it was supposed to end for this Predators squad, the deepest and most talented roster in franchise history.
Let's remember the context here. Suter and Weber can become free agents July 1. They publicly tied their futures to the success of the team this season. Poile did his part by beefing up the roster as much as possible, as Suter and Weber had both urged him to do before the season. All the eggs were in one 2011-12 basket, they were all in.
A five-game, first-round knockout of the mighty Detroit Red Wings signaled that the Preds were worthy of their Stanley Cup hype. But somewhat astonishingly, they went out in five games one round later to a team that plays a similar, stifling style except with less talent. Talk about being force-fed your own medicine and then kicked in the stomach when swallowing.
"Yeah without a doubt," Weber said. "The teams play a similar style of hockey. I don't think we did play our style early in the series, they took advantage and we dug ourselves a big hole."
What happened to the Predators team that looked so dominant for most of the regular season?
Some will argue that Poile's late-season additions changed chemistry.
"I think we had a great group in here, just as good as we've had in the past," Weber said, disagreeing with that notion. "It definitely wasn't the case [of the additions hurting the team]. We didn't accomplish what we thought we could have. It's due in part to a great team in Phoenix, and don't discredit them at all. They deserve to be going on and they're going to do well."
It's always easy to be an arm-chair quarterback after the fact. Let me ask you this: Had Poile not added any bodies to his contending roster, would he not have been hammered for not doing anything to help put his team over the top?
"I don't regret anything," Poile said. "First of all, it was fun. To a man, we all felt we had a legitimate chance to compete with anyone. It was an exciting time, from the trading deadline on, with the additions that we made. It's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to try and compete. In previous years, we weren't able to do that either because our club wasn't good enough or our ownership wasn't in a position to allow us to do that. Like I said, I don't regret anything. It's a real good sign of where our ownership is and where our franchise is an the ability that we'll have going forward to continue to do things."
Hal Gill was solid after coming over from Montreal, a good leader in the room and an excellent shot blocker and penalty killer. Paul Gaustad was decent in a fourth-line role, winning his share of faceoffs, but hardly worth a first-rounder. Andrei Kostitsyn showed a lot of promise early on, as did Radulov after coming over from Russia in March.
But whether anyone will ever admit it or not, Radulov and Kostitsyn never really fit in, on or off the ice. They showed horrible judgment in breaking a team curfew on the eve of Game 2, even if they were not drinking, as they claim.
That mini soap opera was a distraction to the Predators. It may be that the Coyotes would have won this series anyway, but that certainly exacerbated things.
Radulov becomes a restricted free agent July 1, while Kostitsyn will be unrestricted. I highly doubt either player will be back in a Predators uniform next season.
The real concern for Predators fans is the future of the star-studded, blue-line tandem of Suter and Weber. Neither player, understandably, were in the mood Monday night to think about their futures.
"I have no idea," Weber said. "Right now is really not the time to think about it. This is all going to sink in. It's still weird. Coming to the rink tomorrow, we're not going to be coming to play. We're done. Let's let this settle in."
As a UFA, Suter can call his own shots. As an RFA, the captain Weber has less leverage. But if Suter leaves town, there's always the possibility Weber decides not to sign a long-term extension, which would force the Predators' hand. Trade him this summer when his value is still high, or let him walk out the door a year from now when he's an UFA?
A tough summer is ahead.
"We'll have to see," Poile said. "There's certain things that the club has rights to under the CBA and there's certain things that we don't. It's a free world for some players. We have to hope and believe that what we've done this year and the growth of our franchise, whether it's a player like Suter who's an unrestricted free agent, that he sees that commitment and he wants to play with us and play for us. That he wants to play with Shea Weber as his partner and Shea wants to play [for the Predators] in the future. That's why we signed Pekka Rinne and that's why we've been trying to sign these guys. We're going to have to see what we can do."
Big decisions loom in Nashville. And a bit too soon for the Predators' liking.