A year ago at this time, the Nashville Predators entered the playoffs with legitimate title aspirations.
It was an exciting time, the club with one of its strongest regular seasons in history and GM David Poile adding parts before the trade deadline to help the cause.
A disappointing second-round exit to Phoenix left a sour taste for the Predators, but no one at that time could even pretend to predict what the landscape would look like just a year later.
Completely out of the playoffs?
"Without a doubt, it’s been a tough year for us, especially with some of our top guys going down," Predators captain Shea Weber told ESPN.com Wednesday. "We battled hard but in the end we obviously couldn’t pull it together and get in."
These have to be soul-searching moments for Weber, who last summer saw his star defense partner, Ryan Suter, leave for Minnesota, then almost exited himself after signing a $110 million, 14-year offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers only to see the Predators match.
As of Wednesday morning, Weber was 16th among NHL defensemen with 23 points (eight goals) while ranking sixth in ice time at 26 minute per game. It’s not a bad season at all, but under the specter of the contract he signed, it's likely not enough for some.
"Obviously, we didn’t get into the playoffs, that means it didn’t go well for anyone," Weber responded when asked to talk about his own performance. "You can say that guys did well personally all you want, but if you’re not in the playoffs, if you’re not playing for the Stanley Cup, then things didn’t go as well as they should have."
Hard to ignore what old pal Suter is up to in Minnesota, where his 32 points (4-28) are second only to P.K. Subban among NHL defensemen, and there’s much talk about Suter for the Norris Trophy.
Which further illustrates how much the Predators lost when he walked as a free agent last summer. But it’s a stretch to pin Suter’s loss entirely on why the Predators missed the playoffs.
"Losing him is obviously going to affect the team, I don’t think it’s the reason we didn’t make the playoffs," said Weber. "He’s obviously a very good player and he’s done well this year. But I think there’s obviously a lot of other reasons you can attribute to why we’re sitting on the outside looking in."
Reason No. 1: offense, or lack thereof. The Predators are dead last in the NHL in goals per game (2.23) just a season after placing eighth overall at 2.83.
"Yes, that’s one of the biggest things, compared to how many goals we scored last year," said Weber. "I have trouble comprehending why we couldn’t [score this season]. We didn’t really have a big roster turnover. The goal drop is tough to put a finger on."
Injuries up front to the likes of Colin Wilson, Gabriel Bourque and Patric Hornqvist certainly explain part of the offensive drop, but not all of it. More was expected from the likes of Craig Smith and Sergei Kostitsyn, too.
In the end, like many of the teams that won’t make the playoffs, there’s also the danger of overreacting to a lockout-shortened season, where strange things have happened.
"You don’t want to overreact, but you want to be realistic and sit back at the end of the year to see if maybe a thing or two could have made the difference in getting into the playoffs," said Weber. "Obviously, if there’s things that need to change and be fixed, then I think that’s when you make those decisions."
After the trade deadline, I was doing a hit on a Nashville radio station and got blindsided by a question when the host asked me if Martin Erat’s trade request was reflective of team disharmony in the dressing room.
I had no clue, I said.
But I shared that with Weber, who said the Erat situation was isolated and not representative of anything bigger.
"A lot of guys didn’t even know about that," Weber said of Erat, who was dealt to Washington for highly prized prospect Filip Forsberg. "He went about his business and obviously had a conversation with David Poile, he decided he wanted to go. If he doesn’t want to be here, then he has to move on. I don’t think there’s any issue in this locker room. You can talk to any of the guys, everyone likes each other here, it’s like a family. We come to play every night but obviously things didn’t go as well as we wanted this year."