There were 22 players who appeared in at least one game for the Nashville Predators during their playoff run, which ended with Monday’s 2-1 loss at home to the Vancouver Canucks.
Of those, 15 also took part in the 2010 postseason. That means the roster was not dramatically different than it was a year ago.
One change, though, transformed the Predators.
The trade that sent Jason Arnott to the New Jersey Devils last June for Matt Halischuk and a second-round pick in next month’s draft did much more than just replace a high-priced veteran with a youthful prospect.
It created a shift in locker room leadership because Arnott had been the captain for three seasons. Shea Weber, at 25 years old, replaced Arnott in that role, and Ryan Suter, also 25, was named an alternate captain — and for the first time the franchise turned to young, home-grown talent to set the mood and tenor on the ice and off.
“We’ve had some teams that … weren’t made for the playoffs,” coach Barry Trotz said. “We weren’t. We were a good regular-season team and we didn’t know what the next level was.
“This team was more playoff put-together. And it starts with our leadership group. They’re hard, they lead by example and they’re winners.”
Nashville won as many games in the 2011 playoffs (six) as it did in its first four postseasons combined. Each of the last four of those victories required a rally from at least one goal down, and the first two overtime victories in the team’s playoff history were among them.
“I think we grew and a lot of firsts happened this year,” Weber, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, said. “Not a lot of people gave us credit at the start of the year. A lot of people didn’t think we were going to make the playoffs, let alone get into the second round.
“We’re still not satisfied.”
Players never talked about Arnott specifically, but throughout the season they routinely spoke of improved camaraderie, prevalent selflessness and a genuine harmony within the locker room.
“This was a very special group,” Trotz said. “I’ve been coaching a long time, and there’s not too many times I can say, ‘This team had a great intangible.’ … They had a lot of intangibles. They were a group you could be proud of as a coach.
“They came and worked. They had great team unity. And they found ways to get it done.”
Other moves prior to and during the season paid off in ways that were apparent on the stat sheet.
The Predators acquired the rights to Sergei Kostitsyn and then signed him for $550,000, a decidedly modest price for a player who scored a team-high 23 goals during the regular season (he did not have a goal in the playoffs, though). Mike Fisher was added in February and he had two goals and an assist in his first playoff game for Nashville, a 4-1 victory at Anaheim.
Halischuk spent the first four months of the season at Milwaukee but was recalled in mid-January and remained in the NHL for the remainder of the season, save for a two-week reassignment in late March. The impact of his acquisition was heightened when he scored the winning goal in double overtime of Game 2 at Vancouver, the longest game in franchise history.
He finished the postseason with two goals and no assists — exactly what Arnott had in the 2010 series against Chicago.
The reality, though, is that the Predators were not so concerned with replacing Arnott’s numbers. It was more important that they replaced him as the primary voice in the locker room.
“When you’re one of the leaders … I don’t know, you care that much more,” Suter said. “I’m not saying I didn’t care before. It just means that much more to you.
“It’s like … it was our team.”
While many of the players were the same, it actually was a different team.