The Predators have the talent and depth to contend for the Stanley Cup, but poor results at the midway mark of the campaign left GM David Poile with no choice but to fire coach Peter Laviolette. But this isn’t a lost campaign for Nashville. Not by a long shot.
In the business of winning, things change quickly. How quickly? Well, maybe this will help illustrate the point: speaking to a Nashville radio station last Thursday, Predators GM David Poile said firing coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t in the “game plan,” following that up by clearly stating that he was “not contemplating making any coaching change at this time.”
And, hey, Poile wasn’t lying. The coaching change didn’t come Jan. 2, the day after the Predators blew a two-goal lead to the divisional rival Dallas Stars in the Winter Classic, the NHL’s marquee outdoor event that was seen by nearly two million viewers. But following yet another start and all-too-sudden stop – a 4-1 victory over the Western Conference-worst Los Angeles Kings followed by a 5-4 shootout defeat at the hands of an Anaheim Ducks outfit that exited Sunday’s game one point clear of the West basement – Poile’s tune changed. Monday evening, after five and a half seasons at the helm, Laviolette was handed his walking papers. Associate coach Kevin McCarthy was also given the axe.
The reality here, of course, is that Poile didn’t have much choice. His hands were virtually tied. The Predators are foundering, losers of four of their past five and, expected to be among the Central Division’s top teams and a legitimate threat in the West, Nashville will step foot on the ice Tuesday against the Boston Bruins some four points out of the final wild-card spot in the conference. And it would be one thing if this were simply a bout of bad luck, a break or two going against the Predators at an inopportune time with every reason to believe the turnaround was in the offing. That simply wasn’t the case in Nashville, however.
When at their best under Laviolette, the Predators were a smothering defensive unit that could suffocate even the best attacks. It was their calling card and it reflected how Nashville, which to this day possesses one of the best defense corps in the league, had been built. Throughout this campaign, however, the Predators’ own-zone play had slowly been crumbling and it was eroding further in recent weeks. In their past 10 games, Nashville was surrendering scoring chances against at five-a-side at a rate commensurate with the Ducks, New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks. The Predators’ expected goals against rate at fives was the eighth-worst in the NHL when measured against all other teams over their past 10 games. What once had worked was no longer effective.
By that same token, the goaltending that had represented Predators hockey under Laviolette could no longer save him. Pekka Rinne, who is only two seasons removed from winning the Vezina Trophy and finished seventh in voting last season, was inconsistent at the best of times and backup Juuse Saros was no better. The combined .894 save percentage of the two goaltenders, among the lowest combined mark of any first- and second-stringer in the league, wasn’t going to be able to keep Laviolette’s head above water for long. That old axiom states if you show me a good goaltender, I can show you a good coach. But here’s an addendum: if you show me a bad goaltender, I can show you a coach soon to be looking for work.
This is the part, though, where it should be said that Laviolette is by no stretch a poor coach. Quite the opposite. He happens to be among the winningest, one of only 20 with more than 600 NHL victories to his name. A betting man who was so inclined would wager that after some time away, Laviolette will be back behind a big-league bench. Maybe that means next season. Maybe the season after that. We hear Seattle’s looking for a coach. With the way the league recycles coaches as though it’s part of the league’s green initiatives, a Stanley Cup-winning coach with three conference crowns on his mantle won’t stay on the scrap heap long.
In all of this, there is a glimmer of hope. That Laviolette has been sacked with 41 games remaining is indicative of one thing above all else: Poile has faith that an underachieving Nashville team can win its way back into contention. And though it may seem we speak of the four points separating the Predators from the final wild-card spot as if they’ve a Sisyphean task ahead of them, it’s not a deficit so insurmountable as to disqualify Nashville from any thoughts of entering the playoff race again this season. It’s the equivalent of two wins at a time when the Predators have three games in hand on the pair of Albertan teams, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, that occupy those spots as of this writing. Nashville also possesses two games in hand on the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, the only other Western Conference teams separating the Predators from a post-season spot at the time of Laviolette’s firing.
Who takes the reins from Laviolette and attempts to propel the Predators onward and upward is unknown at this point. Suggestions abound, as they so often do. Some posit former San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, relieved not long ago, could be in the running. Same goes for former New Jersey Devils coach Jon Hynes. (That both were fired this season and have been among those whose names have cropped up speaks to the aforementioned recycling of coaches.) As of right now, the Predators aren’t saying. Reported Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Nashville said who patrols the bench against Boston is “to be announced.”
Whoever fills the void, though, will have a stable of horses any coach would feel blessed to have. Pundits picked the Predators to be a contender this season not for Laviolette, but for the roster. The blueline has a big three of Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, though the latter is sidelined with an upper-body injury. The attack boasts the likes of Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, and it’s supplemented by players such as Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Calle Jarnkrok and Craig Smith.
The talent is there, it just needs to be harnessed, and Poile’s gambit is that whoever he tasks with replacing Laviolette will straighten out what needs straightening, figure out what needs figuring and put the Predators back where most believed they would be when the puck dropped on this season. Who knows, come season’s end, maybe we’ll look back upon this move in the same way we look back upon the coaching change of the St. Louis Blues: the decision that sparked a turnaround that was capped with hoisting a 35-pound piece of silverware high above their heads.