"All in" is the sports cliché of the moment. Borrowed from poker, it evokes an image of a savvy gambler shoving a mountain of money to the center of the table, risking it all on the hand he's dealt. Win, and the haul is a king's ransom. Lose?
No one talks about that.
But after getting bounced from the playoffs in the desert by the Phoenix Coyotes, the Nashville Predators are about to find out what happens after "all in" goes all wrong.
This was supposed to be the year — the perfect synergy of peaking vets and developing rookies, intersecting at just the right time with an ownership group suddenly willing to spend and a fan base hungry for more success.
General managers talk about a window of opportunity. This was the Predators'. They were already clicking along in late winter when GM David Poile added four ingredients in February and March, a stout boost of umami to an already potent casserole.
This was a team destined for a deep run in the playoffs — even a run at the Stanley Cup.
But they ran into a Coyotes team using the same model as the Predators, which riposted their every thrust.
The Predators weren't the team with a goalie capable of stealing a game or a series. The Coyotes were. The Predators didn't get the timely goals. The Coyotes did. For every stretch of the Predators' famously suffocating defense, there were lapses seized upon — Predatorily, one might say — by the Coyotes.
In the end, it was Phoenix goalie Mike Smith's series, not Pekka Rinne's. In Arizona, the house won. And now it is Phoenix, not Nashville, moving on to the conference finals, a warm-weather affair with Los Angeles.
So what now?
There are a combined 16 restricted and unrestricted free agents on the Predators roster. Of the three one-shot rent-a-players, only oaken defenseman Hal Gill seemed worthy of what Poile sent away for him. Paul Gaustad was a useful fourth-line center, ambidextrously winning face-offs and killing penalties, but hardly worth the first-round draft pick.
As for Andrei Kostitsyn, he showed flashes of offensive panache as promised, even demonstrating an unexpected willingness to check and bang. But with his foray in the Scottsdale bar with Alexander Radulov, leading to a suspension and a scratch for both, the elder Belarusian brother will be subject of much finger-pointing, as will Rads. Frankly, neither seems likely to remain in gold.
And then there's Ryan Suter, who in the post-game scrum said he hadn't thought about his future — a future where he'll be the game's most coveted free agent, and a future where he'll write his own check. It's also a future that likely won't be in Music City.
Even longtime cornerstones of the team like aging warrior Francis Bouillion and pugnacious Jordin Tootoo are headed for free agency.
Promising up-and-comer Colin Wilson, perhaps the Nashville forward with the most upside, saw himself scratched for a month and then suddenly foisted — with success — onto the team's top line. This could be a portent of things to come, or a cruel, pre-emptory reminder of what might have been.
If any comfort was to be had in the acrid reality of the post-series locker room, it came from Shea Weber's choice of pronouns. With one more year of restricted free agency remaining for the captain, at least fans can rest easy that he opted to use the first-person plural rather than the third, referring to the team as "we" and "us."
In a year filled with the histrionics of a string of most important periods in most important games in most important series in the most important season in team history, now Poile finds himself heading for easily the most important off-season of all.
Tasting second-round success is clearly no longer enough. Not when you've seen victory this close, but no closer. Not when you've gone all in, and returned home with empty pockets and the rent coming due.
What's next for the Predators, who just shoved in all their chips and watched them raked to the other side of the table? It's up to the powers-that-be, who must decide whether to rebuild or reshuffle the hand they've got. One thing the team no longer has to prove to a city squarely on its side: Either way, it's a mighty big deal.
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