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Optimism exists after uncharacteristic season

What a difference a year makes.

April 26, 2012: The Nashville Predators were preparing for their second-round series against the Phoenix Coyotes. The Predators had just beaten Detroit in five games and were a prevailing favorite against Phoenix, a sexy pick to win the whole damn thing.

April 26, 2013: Those same Predators have one game remaining in a disappointing regular season and won’t participate in the playoffs for just the second time since 2004. They limped to the finish line, highlighted by an eight-game losing streak, and will possess a high draft pick.

There are a number of reasons why this season hasn’t gone the Predators’ way. Injuries piled up one after the other. A dip in production across the board led to a 29th-place finish in offense (through 47 games). Depth, arguably the biggest strength of last season’s team, was a weakness this season. Continuously being on the wrong end of ‘puck luck’ didn’t help, either.

Can you recall a season in Nashville (it wasn’t even a full season, mind you) that provided more shock value? Paul Gaustad’s quirky faceoff violation in overtime and Matt Duchene’s offside goal were just tipping the iceberg. Sergei Kostitsyn’s line change was icing on the cake.

When it seemed like the Predators were ready to breakthrough after a spirited comeback win over Dallas, they traveled west and laid an egg in California. When it seemed like they had turned a corner in mid-March, they lost four in a row. When it seemed like they were gearing up for a playoff push with three straight wins, they stunningly gave up five goals in the first 8:26 against Phoenix and lost the next 11 of 12.

It was one of those seasons where nothing went right. Whenever it seemed like the Predators took one step forward, they immediately took two backwards. Then everything spiraled downward, resulting in an unexpected last-place finish in the Central Division.

This season did have its bright spots. Roman Josi, a pre-season question mark, emerged as a top-pair defenseman next to Shea Weber. Before going down to injury, Colin Wilson was having his best NHL season to date. At the same time, young players like Ryan Ellis and Craig Smith didn’t progress as hoped and were sent to Milwaukee at different points this season.

No matter how you slice it, this was an uncharacteristic season from a Predators team that is annually in the playoff hunt.

Despite last summer’s departure of Ryan Suter (and others), head coach Barry Trotz was optimistic about what his team had in store for the 2012-13 season.

“I’ve been around the team a long time and I can tell you I’m as excited about this team as any team we’ve had … We’re not in a rebuilding mode at all. We’re in a go-forward mode to win a Stanley Cup,” Trotz said on July 25, 2012, one day after the Predators matched Weber’s offer sheet with Philadelphia.

Two weeks ago, Trotz was asked if that excitement from last July adds to the disappointment of this season.

“Absolutely. Our expectations are a lot higher than where we are right now. Unfortunately the circumstances aren’t where we want them to be, so it feels even worse,” he said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been here (out of the race in advance of the playoffs). It’s different. It’s just different.”

“It’s a weird feeling,” Weber added. “Everyone in here hates losing. It’s not a good feeling. To know that you don’t have a chance to be in the playoffs is tough.”

As disappointing and frustrating as this season has been for the Predators, there is cause for optimism going forward.

A silver lining to the injuries and trade of Martin Erat is it allowed the coaching staff to get a glimpse of the future in regular-season games instead of rookie/training camp. Filip Forsberg, acquired from Washington for Erat, got his feet wet in the NHL at the age of 18. Victor Bartley and Taylor Beck may have played their way onto next season’s roster following impressive auditions. And the team’s second-half struggles will give them a top-five draft pick in June, which will be a key building block for the future.

A month ago, it was unknown whether the Predators had any prospects in the system that could make a real difference at the NHL level. With Forsberg and a yet-to-be-drafted highly-touted teenager in the cupboard, the Predators are suddenly well-positioned for the future.

This off-season sets up to be an interesting one for the Predators. They are at a key point in deciding on the future of some players, and roster retooling is expected to take place. Trotz recently went as far to say, unprompted, that he is anticipating a “very busy summer” in Nashville.

Predators GM David Poile finds himself in a somewhat favorable position heading into the off-season. It’s the first time since 2010 that he doesn’t have to think of ways to lock up Weber, Suter and Pekka Rinne. Weber has 13 years left on his contract, Rinne is locked up for six more and Suter is in Minnesota.

According to CapGeek.com, the Predators have 14 players accounting for $42 million in 2013-14, with the biggest priority being to re-sign Roman Josi and Patric Hornqvist, both of whom are restricted free agents. After those signings take place, Poile will have cap space and resources to work with while others won’t when the salary cap shrinks to $64.3 million.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it – we want to be a top-level team and we have to go there. We’re going to have to do what’s necessary to do that,” Trotz said on Apr. 17.

The goal for the Predators will be to bounce back from a weird, nightmarish, lockout-shortened season and return to playoff contention once again – perhaps even Cup contention, which is the new bar for this franchise.

For that to happen, not only will some retooling need to take place but the current roster can’t let this late-season funk have a carryover effect. This last month has been so out of the ordinary for the Predators that they’ll want to re-establish that winning mindset from the last few seasons.

Today’s NHL and the parity it possesses has allowed middling teams to bounce back almost overnight. In six of the previous seven seasons, a team that has finished in the league’s bottom five has made the postseason the following season.

The 2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers had a down year and finished 30th overall, but made the playoffs in each of the next five seasons. The Montreal Canadiens finished last in the East in 2011-12, but are a playoff team this season. The Islanders and Maple Leafs also finished in the bottom five last season, only to make the playoffs here in 2013 (and the Blue Jackets still have a shot at a playoff berth).

All different situations, of course, but all examples for why Nashville could turn it around quickly.

“I don’t want to think that this could happen too much longer,” Rinne said of this season’s losing ways. “I feel like this season, for the bigger part of the season we were right there and in good shape but never really got it going. Then we had bad stretches that just killed us, among the injuries. But I don’t see it in the future that it’s going to be like a rebuilding process or whatever you want to call it.”

It’s a different situation the Predators find themselves in, for sure. Last summer they were hoping to build off the momentum of a second-straight appearance in the Western Conference Semifinals. This summer they’re looking to rebound in a big way after finishing next-to-last in the conference.

What a difference a year makes.

The thing is we could be saying that same phrase again next year at this time.

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