Predators eliminated by Canucks: What went wrong and what it means moving forward

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the end, the Nashville Predators had too many mistakes. Too many just-missed plays. Not enough starring from their stars. Too few power plays that could even find a way into the offensive zone — forget making something happen within it. And zero home wins.

The Preds’ 2023-24 season started with scant expectation of a postseason berth and ended in disappointment, because Andrew Brunette’s first Preds team raised expectations along the way. Friday’s 1-0 Game 6 loss to Vancouver at Bridgestone Arena, yet another soul crusher for Nashville, made for a 4-2 series defeat — a series the Preds truly could have won 4-1.

They were dominated in one game, their 4-1 Game 2 win at Vancouver. They did a lot of what they wanted to do – in hockey parlance, they “got to their game” – for long stretches of the next four games of the series. And lost three of four.



How the Canucks closed out the Predators in Game 6

“It hurts,” Brunette said Friday night, a few hours after being named a Jack Adams finalist. “It’s hockey at times. Sometimes it’s unexplainable. … Hockey’s cruel sometimes.”

It was never crueler than late in the game that will go down in Preds postseason infamy, Sunday’s Game 4 at Bridgestone Arena. That saw a two-goal lead blown in the final 2:49 of regulation and just 62 seconds of overtime required to drop them to a 3-1 series deficit. Add that 3:51 with the 12 seconds in the third period of Game 1 that saw a one-goal lead become a deficit, and you’ve got 4 minutes and 3 seconds of the most miscue-riddled, costly hockey this franchise has played.

That’s too much to overcome, in tandem with a power play that was a disjointed letdown, going 2-for-22, against a better team. Though the Preds carried the play with more regularity as the series aged, the Canucks are much stronger down the middle and got the pressure plays the Preds lacked — that’s why Vancouver moves on to face the Edmonton Oilers despite losing its top two goalies to injury against the Preds.

Nashville continued the franchise’s strange tradition of not being clutch enough at home in the postseason. Friday marked the Preds’ sixth straight playoff loss at Bridgestone Arena, dating to Carolina’s Game 6 clincher in 2021. It also dropped Nashville to 7-16 all-time in elimination games — including 2-10 at home. Take out the Preds’ 9-2 home record in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final run and you’ve got too many fantastic atmospheres that have not been rewarded by the home team.

Preds fans were in their seats and primed for a 6 p.m. local start Friday. Their energy, inflated by those timeout standing ovations, did not disappoint. Deflation didn’t come until 1:39 remained in regulation, thanks to a sublime pass from one of the Canucks’ stars who starred, Brock Boeser, to cutting Pius Suter for the game-winner.

That brings us to the Nashville Predators’ best players, and how they played, and what it says about the future.

Filip Forsberg ended up with two goals and four assists in six games, plus a key role in the defensive zone miscommunication that ended the Game 4 overtime early. Roman Josi collected a goal, two assists and a bloody ear in five games, and he was on the ice — all the way onto the ice — when the Canucks tied Game 4 with 6.2 seconds left.

Both of them created opportunities in the offensive zone and put their bodies in the way of Canucks opportunities in the defensive zone. They were desperate. They were good. They appeared to put Game 4 away with Josi creating a Forsberg goal on the rush, and Forsberg got the assist on Josi’s third-period, power-play goal in Game 5 to equalize that game. They had moments.

But they needed another Friday and didn’t find it. They weren’t “star good,” and the first power-play unit they inhabit together is evidence alone of that, though Brunette said his top players were “outstanding” when asked about their production in the series.

Josi and Forsberg sure aren’t the problem. And they still represent the timeline. They’re taking up a combined $17,559,000 of the Preds’ cap for the next four seasons ($8.5 million for Forsberg, $9.059 million for Josi), with matching no-movement clauses in their contracts.

At the end of that 2027-28 season, if no clauses are waived and no contracts bought out, Josi will be a 37-year-old free agent and Forsberg a 33-year-old with two years left on his deal. Between now and then, can first-year GM Barry Trotz build a team that Brunette can take on a legitimate chase after the franchise’s first Stanley Cup?

Only if Forsberg and Josi get more help. They are the cornerstones, but not the kind that carry a team that far. They need more around them. Ryan O’Reilly and Gus Nyquist turned out to be brilliant veteran adds in Trotz’s first summer — though O’Reilly said he was “terrible” in the series after collecting just a goal and an assist — and their top line with Forsberg is a primary reason this team got to the postseason.

Now, to advance in it? There are other keepers on this roster, starting with rookie Luke Evangelista, and the Preds got some outstanding performances from players who weren’t being paid to score in this series.

But the players who will push the Preds closer to the best in the league aren’t on the roster right now. And that’s why goaltender Juuse Saros’ days on it may be numbered.

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That’s a commentary on the state of the NHL and this roster, not on his play — though his .900 save percentage for the series was unspectacular. It was a bit deceiving, too, and Saros was tremendous in the final two games of the series, stopping 46 of 48 shots.

He committed thievery more than once in the second period Friday, then denied Suter a primo chance early in the third. He stoned a streaking Boeser on a backhand try 11 minutes into a period totally controlled by Vancouver. He was a star who starred.

“Ifs and buts,” Saros said when asked if he played his best the last two games, contrasting it immediately with how he played early in the series.

All around Saros in the disappointment of a season ended abruptly, of a flight to Vancouver for a Game 7 made unnecessary, the guys who count on him gushed about him.

O’Reilly: “He was unbelievable.”

Brunette: “He’s all competitive fight — he’s awesome.”

Josi: “He’s our backbone.”

Goaltending is a strength with No. 74 in the crease. Saros’ final impression couldn’t have been much stronger. But giving him a long-term deal in the range of $8 million a year, up from the $5 million AAV deal that has one year left on it, still seems like an unwise course of action.

Gifted prospect Yaroslav Askarov is rising. Saros is 29 years old and, at 5-11, more dependent on explosive athleticism than his larger counterparts. Offensive firepower matters most in this league now. The Preds ultimately lost to a team that has more skill and depth in its forward group, and that shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence.

The return for Saros may not be what Trotz would like because as offensive skill has risen in value, franchise goalies are proving less essential. But the cap space saved its own reward.

This season was rewarding, too. No question about that. To build on it right away, with few prospects looking ready to assume key roles, Trotz needs to acquire and spend some money.

(Photo of Juuse Saros: Brett Carlsen / Getty Images)

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