Four days after the Predators packed their bags and departed the NHL's postseason bubble, questions still linger about what went wrong for a team that felt they had the ability to make a run in the dog days of summer.
Instead, a four-game series loss at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes brought an end to Nashville's journey in 2019-20, a story that began 11 months ago with the start of training camp in September.
No one could have ever imagined the setting in which the season came to a conclusion, but no matter when or where the final outing took place, the Preds ultimately fell short of their goal.
So, as Predators Captain Roman Josi, along with forwards Nick Bonino and Filip Forsberg joined one more virtual press conference on Wednesday - a format they've become all too familiar with over the past five months - they put their thoughts out into the open as they discussed the most unique season in franchise history.
As was the case following Friday's overtime loss in Game 4, the obvious disappointment was mixed in with a different feeling that doesn't often come with defeat, and it's something the group is finding balance in as the offseason begins.
"We said it after the series, but it felt a lot different than the year before [against Dallas] where we got outplayed mostly," Josi said from his home in Nashville. "I didn't think that was the case against Arizona, but at the same time, we lost and we didn't get the job done. We've been making the playoffs, so we've got to look at that, too. I think it's a fine balance between bringing some confidence into the next year, but also really looking at things. There's high expectations within our room, so we've got to definitely look at those things and make sure we learn from it and get better for next year."
"It was a pretty silent, pretty dejected locker room [when we lost to the Stars in 2019]," Bonino said. "We weren't happy at all with how we played… and we knew a lot of things had to change. I think this year… we showed up, we played hard, we had a better system, everybody individually played better than we did last year, so it's definitely easier to be proud of it. But like [Josi] said, a loss is a loss. Maybe at the beginning of the year when you're going through the first 10, 20 games, moral victories are OK… That stings in the playoffs, because we ran out of time. Obviously, we missed something. It wasn't enough what we did. I think we're all happier with how we played, but obviously not happy with the end result."
Preds Players on 2019-20 Season
22:27 • August 12th, 2020
That frustration is what will help to drive the Preds as they enter a different offseason with an uncertain future. Like many, Forsberg said Wednesday he'll stick around Nashville for a bit before heading back home to Sweden. The NHL has yet to set an official date to the start of the 2020-21 campaign, but players figure they'll have a few months before they're asked to return to Tennessee.
The time will be used to take a break from the everyday grind that comes with being a professional hockey player, but reflection will also occur, and there is plenty for the Predators to look back upon.
"It's the littlest thing that can win or lose games, and this year, those little things didn't go our way," Bonino said. "In the playoffs, our special teams were great, our power play and our penalty kill were great, so that wasn't it… It's tough to really pinpoint what goes wrong. It [hasn't even been a week] since we've been done, so these are things we'll look at. I'm sure we'll have discussions together, but I feel like the players [here] are the right group of players, and it's something we've just got to figure out. But obviously, as we get older, you don't want to take too long to do that."
Many of those discussions and reviews began when John Hynes took over as head coach back in January and continued over the past several months. While the Predators didn't achieve the desired result in their Stanley Cup Qualifier series, there were still nuances to Nashville's game that underwent a necessary makeover.
"With coach Hynes coming in, he put a lot of value on the little things that you wouldn't [normally] watch on video," Bonino said. "We've watched a lot of blocked shots… we'd see decisions at blue lines, and I think those are the things that in the playoffs do [make such] a big deal… Getting on the forecheck, getting the puck back after a forecheck, I think things like that were things that coach stressed, and not just [to a player like Forsberg] but everyone on the team… and you could see it in our lineup. Top to the bottom when [Hynes] came in, I think we got a bit more detailed. There are times obviously when guys, with the skill they have, are going to do what they do, but a lot of the hockey games now are so tight-checking that you have to make decisions. You have to do little things, and we definitely made some big strides in that as a team."
Hynes also stressed "mental fortitude" from the moment he arrived in Nashville, and players agree they found improvement in that aspect of the game, too.
"The more games you played under him the better we got," Josi said of Hynes. "The mental part was definitely something we were struggling with a little bit, and I think even just looking at the playoffs, I felt like we were attacking the games… We didn't really sit back, and I think that's a big step. That's something we've got to keep doing and keep working on it. You can always get better, but I think we made some strides in that sense with him behind the bench."
No team in the NHL returns fully intact from the season before, and the Predators know they'll be no different this time around. However, the core of the club is expected to be back whenever the puck does drop again, and the belief that still exists in the Nashville locker room also circulates from player to player in one another.
"It's the core group of guys [who are going to] lead the team, and I believe 100 percent that we have the right guys in that spot," Forsberg said. "There's a challenge being one of those guys and being counted on, but that's something that I've put a lot of thought into… I thought the playoffs were a step in the right direction for me, personally, in that aspect, and obviously it's going to be a big challenge for me, individually, to be one of those guys… and I definitely think we have the right group of guys. Changes, just with the salary cap and everything, are probably going to happen at some point, but the main guys have been the same for a while. As of right now, it doesn't look like that's going to change and I really believe in that."
Each season that culminates with a postseason loss brings the need for evaluation and potential personal changes, no matter how large or small. Predators players need not worry about those decisions - they'll be made upstairs in the front office - but self-evaluations are a necessary part of the process.
Perhaps the Preds will discover more answers to their questions in the months to come, and with a foundation already in place for the next journey, they might just find what they're looking for by the time they slip on a Gold sweater once again.
And as for the opportunity to win the ultimate prize? Don't count this group out just yet.
"All of our core guys are playing their best hockey right now," Bonino said. "Our captain is hopefully going to win the Norris [Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman], we've got, a lot of guys playing great hockey… There definitely is a window for every team, but I think we're in ours right now."