By advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history, he Nashville Predators took a major step forward this season.
In the first round they eliminated an experienced Anaheim Ducks team which entered the playoffs on a hot streak, then threw a scare into the President's Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks by pushing their series to six games.
Since 2003-04, the Predators have been a consistent playoff club, making the post-season six of the past seven seasons, but until this year couldn't advance beyond the first round.
They've been long renowned for their energetic, physical defensive game, thanks to Barry Trotz, the only head coach in franchise history, who is widely respected for his ability to get the most out of his players.
Long time Predators general manager David Poile not only does a fine job icing a competitive team, but has an impressive history of drafting and developing star goaltenders and defensemen.
In netminder Pekka Rinne and blueliners Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, they've now got three all-stars who're likely to remain amongst the game's elite players for many years.
Provided the Predators ownership is willing to spend what Poile will need to retain them – Weber this season, Suter and Rinne in 2012 – these three could be the foundation upon which Poile could build a potential Stanley Cup contender.
That's not an overstatement. In management, behind the bench, in goal and on defense, the Predators have the pieces in place for a championship contender.
What's missing is the last, key piece: scoring.
The Predators did a phenomenal job checking most of the Canucks top scorers – apart from Ryan Kesler - in submission, but they lacked the offensive punch which could've turned the series in their favor.
Checking forward Joel Ward, he of the 29 points in 80 games this season, was the Predators leading scorer during their playoff run, with 13 points in 12 games, but that doesn't mean Nashville has a blossoming scorer on their hands for next season.
The 30-year-old Ward's best season in his four-year NHL career was a 35-point performance '08-'09, and it's unlikely he'll carry this spring's torrid scoring into next season.
During the regular season, the Predators only had two players – forwards Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat – net fifty points. Only two players – Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist – scored more than 20 goals. Only one other forward – David Legwand – managed over 40 points.
In this year's playoffs, Kostitsyn managed only five asssists, Hornqvist only 3 points, and Erat 1 goal and five assists. Apart from Ward, only Legwand, with 9 points, could be said to have had a good post-season offensively.
Unless the Predators can bolster their scoring depth, it'll be very difficult for them to build upon this year's post-season improvement.
Complicating things however could be the contract status of team captain Weber, who's a restricted free agent this summer, plus is also eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer.
Poile obviously hopes to retain him, and despite some baseless internet speculation, it's believed Weber wants to remain, but figuring out a workable long-term contract could be tricky. The Predators traditionally tend to be a low-spending team, though this past season their payroll topped $50 million, still well under this season's salary cap of $59.4 million.
They currently have over $40.8 million invested in 17 players for next season, and in addition to Weber, they must either re-sign or replace restricted free agents like Kostitsyn, Cal O'Reilly, Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk, as well as unrestricted free agents Ward, Marc Goc, Shane O'Brien and Steve Sullivan.
Kostitsyn. O'Reilly, Spaling and Halischuk should be affordable re-signings. Ward earned $1.5 million this season, and his playoff performance could earn him a new contract with the Predators, provided he's not seeking too much over $2 million per season. It remains to be seen if O'Brien and Goc will be re-signed, and the aging, oft-injured Sullivan has probably played his last game with the Predators
Taking Weber out of the equation, and assuming it costs around $9 million to bring back everyone but Sullivan, O'Brien and Goc, that would put Nashville's payroll at over $50 million for next season.
Assuming the salary cap for next season is around $63 million, that would leave plenty of room to re-sign Weber to a healthy raise ($6.5 million per season?) and leave enough to perhaps add an affordable scorer or two...if the Predators spent up to the cap ceiling.
But that's unlikely to happen, meaning if Poile re-signs Weber as expected, he won't have any more cap space to bring in more scoring via free agency, or to add more salary via trade.
That could mean looking at other options, such as buying out the final season of fading winger J.P. Dumont's contract, which would provide savings of over $2.66 million for next season, though they would have a cap hit of $1.33 million for the upcoming season and 2012-13.
He could put that savings to use bringing in a top-six forward via trade or free agency, but don't expect to see Brad Richards or Alexander Semin suiting up for the Predators next season.
Matthew Lombardi could also provide much-needed scoring depth next season, provided he makes a full recovery from the concussion symptoms which sidelined him for all but two games this season.
Forget about wayward Predators Alexander Radulov returning to Nashville, as he reportedly signed a three-year extension last summer with his KHL team.
Poile could make a bold move by trading Weber for a top-scoring forward but that probably only happens if he's unable to get the blueliner re-signed, and even then, moving their captain and best defenseman for more scoring would address one problem but create another, than being the gaping hole Weber's absence would leave on their blueline.
While it remains to be seen what Poile has in mind, best guess is he re-signs Weber, buys out Dumont, tries to get most of his core free agents re-signed to affordable short-term deals and attempts to land an affordable scorer via free agency or trade.
After that, it'll come down to hoping Lombardi makes a full recovery and can play next season, look for a full season of Mike Fisher in the lineup providing a further boost, anticipate Martin Erat having a bounce-back season, and look for improvement from their younger forwards.