NASHVILLE — Despite another early exit from the Stanley Cup hunt, the Nashville Predators believe they're back to playing the way it takes to return to contending for the NHL title.
To do that, though, they'll have to win a playoff series for the first time since 2017 — and that will require even more.
"We've got to elevate, and we've got to elevate individually, elevate as a team and organization to be able to get ourselves past this point," Nashville coach John Hynes said after completing his first full season with the team.
The Predators salvaged a start that had them in contention for the NHL lottery draft by winning 20 of their final 28 regular-season games to reach the postseason for a seventh straight year. Yet they lost their first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes in six games even as four straight matchups went to overtime. That included the finale as the the top-seeded Hurricanes' Sebastian Aho scored his second goal of the game 1:06 into the extra period for a 4-3 comeback victory.
It was just the third NHL postseason series with four or more consecutive OT contests — Games 3 and 4 actually required two overtimes — and the first since the 2012 conference quarterfinal showdown between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Phoenix Coyotes. The other was the 1951 Stanley Cup Final between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hynes said the Predators showed a toughness, a style of play and an identity they didn't have a year ago, when they lost a best-of-five series against the Coyotes in four games during the qualifying round.
Defenseman Ryan Ellis said they had lost the "Predator way" the past couple seasons but have regained it. Ellis, who has been with the franchise for a decade, was part of the run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, which Nashville lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"There's a lot of optimism around here, or there should be, because from where we came the last couple of years to to the identity we have now, the way we play now," Ellis said. "I mean, we just hung with the one where they finished second or third in the whole thing."
Injuries sped up a youth movement postponed once the NHL announced a condensed schedule for this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. David Poile, at 71 the league's winningest general manager, now has to tighten up a roster that featured a franchise-record 12 rookies and a handful of highly paid veterans.
"We've just got to find a way to to be a little bit better in all areas," center Ryan Johansen said. "I think we can take a lot of confidence as a group in our abilities from these last three, four months and moving forward."
The Predators have a chance at clearing some roster and salary cap space if the Seattle Kraken take one of their big contracts off their hands during the expansion draft on July 21. Matt Duchene still has five years left on the contract he signed in July 2019 paying him $8 million a year, but he scored only 13 points in 34 games this season with a minus-12 rating. Johansen also is being paid $8 million a year with four years left, but he led Nashville with three goals this postseason.
Poile made clear last month he'd like to sign defenseman Mattias Ekholm to an extension, though he has another year for a deal, and Filip Forsberg also will need an extension in a year.
Center Mikael Granlund is due to be a free agent after he tied for the team lead with five points in the playoffs and 13 goals during the regular season. Erik Haula — who ranked ninth on the team with 21 points during the regular season — and Brad Richardson also will be free agents.
The Predators also have several restricted free agents, led by Tanner Jeannot and Eeli Tolvanen, who was benched for Game 6 but had 22 points in 40 games.
Veteran goalie Pekka Rinne, the 2018 Vezina Trophy winner, posted an emotional shutout in the regular-season finale against Carolina. He turns 39 in November, and his extension that paid him $5 million each of the past two seasons is too much to pay a backup.
He's tied for 19th in NHL history with Tom Barrasso with 369 career victories, and he also has 60 career shutouts — two this season — so an extension bringing him back is possible.
Juuse Saros, who turned 26 last month, proved he is the Predators' No. 1 goalie now. A restricted free agent, he's in line for a pay hike from the $1.5 million for this season. Saros went 21-11-1 during the regular season, and he tied then set the franchise record for saves in back-to-back double-OT victories.
"We all know what happened, how he played really well down the stretch the second half of the year," Hynes said. "He was a big difference in this series."