NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Missing the post-season is a feeling coach Barry Trotz wants his Predators to remember to make sure it doesn't happen again for a long time.
The Predators were the only Western Conference team to reach the semifinals each of the previous two seasons, but Saturday night's 3-1 loss in Columbus merely was a finality for a team long eliminated from playoff contention. The Predators spent Sunday with exit interviews the day after the season ended for only the second time in the past nine seasons and the first since 2009.
"We'll be back no question," Trotz said. "As I said after the game, we couldn't control all the stuff. This is an awful feeling that our season ends officially ... And I say it's a feeling you don't want to have ever again. I guarantee you we'll be back."
Nashville also will be about $23 million under the salary cap, according to CapGeek.com, giving general manager David Poile more money to spend to add some more scoring and possibly another veteran defenceman. He also said he will not trade defenceman and captain Shea Weber, dismissing speculation that he might do that this off-season to avoid the $110 million deal signed last July.
"As we stand right now, as a healthy team, we are way better than what our record is today," Poile said. "Do we need help? Yeah, we've got to me more dynamic up front. I think in goaltending and on defence, I think we are pretty good, but we have to be more dynamic at forward."
The Predators finished 16-23-9 with their first season below .500 since 2002-03. A lack of offence and injuries largely were to blame.
They scored the fewest goals in the NHL with 111, and they went 2-6 in the shootout where a lack of creativity showed. When Colin Wilson's season ended March 9 with a shoulder injury that required surgery in April, he was their top scorer with seven goals and 19 points. When the season ended, Weber had a team-best 28 points (9 goals, 19 assists).
They still have goalie Pekka Rinne, who finished tied for first in the NHL with five shutouts after playing 43 of the 48 games. Rinne and Weber are the foundation Poile will add around starting in the draft and then free agency in July.
Weber said Sunday that he is fully committed to the Predators and that everyone, himself included, can be better next season.
"It wasn't a collective thing where everyone was going at the same time," Weber said. "We need to get better at that and obviously if guys are healthy, that's going to help. Our top players got hurt this year, and that is going to hurt any team."
Finishing 14th in the West, the Predators are assured of at least a top five draft pick with a 10.7 per cent chance at landing the right to draft first in the NHL's draft lottery Monday night. Either way, they'll draft higher than they have in years.
In this lockout-shortened season, the Predators couldn't manage all the injuries that decimated their roster and left them often playing six rookies the final month of the season. They also had an alternate captain in Martin Erat ask to be traded just before the deadline, though that move brought them Filip Forsberg who showed the offensive skills Nashville long has lacked.
"We faced some adversity and just didn't have enough to overcome it," forward Mike Fisher said. "We will use that feeling of disappointment."
Wilson wasn't the only player Nashville lost to injuries. Only eight Predators played 40 or more games this season. The injuries kept coming even in the season finale with forward Sergei Kostitsyn hurting his knee, which will take up to a month to heal as well.
Trotz said a coach can replace a player here or there but not a whole bunch at the same time.
"We had basically our skill core wiped off because of injuries and therefore we didn't get off to where we wanted to be," Trotz said.
The plus is that Trotz got to evaluate a batch of young talent like Forsberg, who played in five games without losing a year under his entry-level contract, Austin Watson, Joonas Rask, Chris Mueller and Taylor Beck. Trotz said the Predators got away from their culture, which showed in their road record of 5-14-5 and their first sub .500 season since 2002-03.
"A good thing is that everybody is excited for next season already," forward Patric Hornqvist said. "We have to come back and be better."