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How will the 2011-12 Predators be remembered?

How do you remember the 2006-07 Nashville Predators? Do you remember them as the best regular season team in franchise history? Or do you remember them – between a first-round exit and the Peter Forsberg experiment that didn’t work out – as a disappointment?

For the majority of Predators fans, it’s the latter.

How will you remember the 2011-12 Predators? Will you remember as the team that went from playoff contender to Stanley Cup contender? Or will you remember them – between a second-round exit and the Alexander Radulov gamble that arguably backfired – as a disappointment?

For the majority of Predators fans, it’ll probably be the latter.

But it should be the former.

Last year at this time the Predators were happy with their progress. They weren’t satisfied with their second-round defeat to Vancouver, but they took a lot of steps in the right direction and took a positive approach into the off-season.

Last week, a lot of disappointment was expressed by the players as they went their separate ways just 48 hours after losing in five games to the Phoenix Coyotes. They expected to advance further than they did in 2011. They expected to beat Phoenix and play for – and win – the Stanley Cup next month.

“Right away we set our goals extremely high and (had) a real shot at the Stanley Cup. This year it really felt like it,” Pekka Rinne said.

Mike Fisher added, “When you don’t win and you feel like you have a chance – we felt like we were right there – it’s disappointing. I thought we had more in us, for sure.”

This playoff exit will sting for a long time – just like it did in 2007.

Everything was set up for the Predators this spring. Not only did they eliminate rival Detroit, but Vancouver, Chicago and San Jose – the only four teams to ever beat the Predators in the playoffs – were also knocked out in the first round. They had the right mixture of talent and depth to win 16 playoff games and were the favorite to come out of the West before the second round began.

Instead, they came away with just five playoff wins. Nowadays that is unacceptable in Nashville – a sign of how far this team’s expectations, both in-house and league-wide, have come.

“This was the first time that we got rid of the word ‘can’t’ – we can’t do this, we can’t do a lot of things,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “The Nashville Predators are about winning now. … Our pursuit is all about the Stanley Cup.”

From 2004 to now, with seven playoff appearances under their belt, the Predators have gone from ‘competitive team’ to ‘playoff contender’ to ‘Stanley Cup contender’.

This was the season the Predators became a ‘Stanley Cup contender’.

The Predators finished the season with 104 points (third most in franchise history), all the more impressive after a 12-11-4 start that had Trotz, in his words, “wondering if we had the goods to even make the playoffs.”

For the first time, the Predators:

- Finished the regular season in the top 10 of each of the following categories: points, goals for, goals against, power play and penalty kill. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks were the only other team to do this in 2011-12.

- Were a favorite of any kind heading into a playoff series. They were the favorite in both playoff series, against Detroit and Phoenix, gaining the accolades from national pundits like never before.

- Spent money like a contender when they doled out a seven-year, $49 million extension to Pekka Rinne (this season’s league leader in wins) on November 1st.

- Had a target solidly placed on their back. With stars like Rinne, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, only to be joined by Radulov and numerous trade deadline acquisitions late in the year, the Predators turned into the ‘big team that should’ instead of the ‘little team that could’.

- Had 25 sellouts during a regular season, proving that the fan base continues to grow and that ‘Smashville’ is among the toughest venues for opponents to play in.

A pretty successful season, I’d say. You can make an argument that the Predators joined the ranks of the elite this season.

Should all of that be overshadowed by a premature playoff exit? Though most of you would say yes, it shouldn’t.

Nobody knows what will happen with Suter this summer (or any of the other 15 free agents); not even he knows what he will do. But losing Suter, as disappointing as it sounds today, wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Predators.

Assuming they re-sign Weber (and possibly Radulov), the Predators have already built a solid foundation. The players that make up the current core are all headed into their prime, unlike Detroit, San Jose and others. And there’s nothing that says the Predators can’t spend the money set aside for Suter on someone else that can help the pursuit of a Stanley Cup.

As disappointing as the second-round playoff exit is, and as much as it will sting this summer, this was one helluva season in Nashville. It’s one they can build on for next season and beyond.

2004 was a stepping stone to 2006 and 2007, the two most successful regular seasons in franchise history.

2010 was a stepping stone to 2011, where the Predators rid their playoff demons.

2012 could very well be a stepping stone to the coming years, as long as the Predators continue to cement themselves as one of the top teams in the Western Conference and entire NHL.

As GM David Poile said after the season, “Life shows us that sometimes when you have your biggest disappointments – if you learn your lessons well – it can sometimes be followed by your most success. I think and hope that’s where we’re headed to with our franchise and our team.”

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