When the Nashville Predators parted ways with Barry Trotz back in 2014, David Poile knew he needed a way to take his roster to the next level.
The team was in full transition, having just acquired some promising new forwards like Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok in exchange for aging veterans Martin Erat and David Legwand. Having not made the playoffs since losing to the Arizona Coyotes in the 2nd round in 2012, Poile was ready for another taste of playoff action, but he needed a way to get the best out of a young and exciting roster.
To Poile, the idle Peter Laviolette seemed like the perfect option.
“We’ve taken a big leap in the right direction getting our team back on the path, and that path is toward the playoffs,” Poile said in 2014 after announcing the hire. “With his system and different ideas if you will, I think offensively we have a chance to be a lot better under his leadership.”
And though he would eventually have to fire Laviolette a few years later, David Poile made the absolute perfect hire.
Laviolette accelerated the Preds to relevance
Almost immediately, the Predators became relevant again under Peter Laviolette’s leadership. The Preds jumped out to a 16-5-2 record in the 2014-15 season, sitting in 1st place in the Central Division on December 1st. A late season swoon and a few cold stretches for Calder Trophy hopeful Filip Forsberg saw them finish in 2nd in the Central, but it was a remarkable turn around for a team that didn’t make the playoffs the previous year. They eventually lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1st round of the playoffs, a team which would go on to win their 3rd Stanley Cup in five seasons.
The Preds entered the 2015-16 season as a dark horse candidate to make a Stanley Cup run, and even if it was a little premature to call them such, they still made the playoffs in the 1st Wild Card spot. They made their deepest playoff run yet, getting to Game 7 of the 2nd Round, only to be blown out by the Sharks in San Jose.
By his third year in Nashville, Laviolette’s influence was undeniable. The team had an improved offense, a formidable defense, and a solid backbone in Pekka Rinne. Coaching with a “total team hockey” mindset, Laviolette’s system encouraged active zone participation and cycling in the offensive zone. Players like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm flourished, while players like Colin Wilson and Kevin Fiala struggled at times.
Then came the Stanley Cup run that most people did not see coming.
Building momentum into actual success
It would be impossible to ignore Laviolette’s influence on that magical run in 2017. His experience in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes and in 2010 with the Philadelphia Flyers no doubt played a huge role in navigating the Predators’ 22-game stretch into June that year.
Especially because of the injuries the Preds endured. Losing Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen to season ending injuries, but still finding a way to get within two games of hockey’s biggest prize, is an impressive feat. Navigating the toughest tournament in sports is something not all coaches can do, and Laviolette showed he can do it better than most.
The Preds followed up the Stanley Cup run with a Presidents’ Trophy in 2018, which I would argue is just as difficult as the Stanley Cup. Being better than 30 other teams over 82 games is harder than being better than 15 other teams over 30 games, though I recognize the Presidents’ Trophy only has a fraction of the meaning and significance of the Cup.
Again, Laviolette’s influence is undeniable here. Maintaining the level of competition and strategy needed to win the Presidents’ Trophy is a tough task. You have to treat a Tuesday night in October the same as a Saturday night in March. You can’t dwell on losses too long, you have to keep your team motivated to win every single night.
With the team’s success in 2017 and 2018, Peter Laviolette showed us he wasn’t just a “stepping stone” for the Preds to get where they wanted. He was the rock upon which this team would build actual success. He was the key to getting all the trophies they had longed for all these years.
And then… he wasn’t.
Systematic problems and Laviolette’s undoing
We started to see a drop off in the Preds’ defensive system in early 2018. All of a sudden the Preds started giving up a lot more high danger chances and abandoning their goalies, a trend which got worse as the year went on. While Pekka Rinne was playing at a Vezina Trophy winning level, it was just something to laugh at… but then Rinne came back to earth (got older?) and the goals against became a real problem.
Combine this with the lack of consistent scoring in the offensive end and you’ve got a recipe for a frustrating hockey team. What brand of Preds would the fans see on a nightly basis? The one that gives up multiple goals early and has to make a comeback, only to fall short? Or the one that dominates an opponent for two periods, then allows a comeback and loses in overtime? Or maybe the one that can’t seem to get a quality shot on the opposing goalie to save its life?
And in the same way we recognize Laviolette’s influence during the team’s unprecedented success, we have to recognize his influence during its failure.
The inconsistency of Laviolette’s teams of late were largely due to the same system that brought them such success early on. “Total team hockey” requires fast moving, active players that can pump a high volume of shots on the opposing goalie. It’s less about possessing the puck and more about giving the other goalie as much to think about as possible. Denying the opposing team a chance to break out after a turnover or a clearance is paramount, though this doesn’t work if the attack doesn’t generate a good enough chance on goal.
When all you care about is putting shots on goal, when that’s your most consistent message to your hockey team, it starts to stifle creativity. Players are always doing what they can to get more ice time, so they simply do what the coach asks, even if it results in an event less likely to get a goal. This is great for younger players, who are often intimidated by the speed and size of the NHL game. But veteran players need the room and space to be able to create for themselves on the ice.
It’s no wonder players like Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene, and (to some extent) Ryan Johansen, have struggled to be consistent under Laviolette’s system. They need more puck possession and more passing lanes to create goals than just a higher volume of shots on goal. It’s also no wonder that players like Viktor Arvidsson, Rocco Grimaldi, Craig Smith and (to some extent) Roman Josi have flourished under Laviolette, as they are natural “shoot first” players.
In the end, Laviolette’s failure was in an underlying philosophy that the Predators increasingly talented and skilled roster could no longer be patient with. It’s hard to blame Peter Laviolette for sticking with what led him to 637 wins; it’s hard to blame David Poile for refusing to accept that there isn’t a better way to win in the NHL.
Rocket fuel to help the Preds soar
In the end, Laviolette’s legacy will be in carrying the Nashville Predators, a franchise that had only minimal success in its early years, to unforeseen heights in the NHL. It seemed like the team had reached a ceiling in the Barry Trotz years, albeit the team was hampered by money issues and off-ice distractions for most of his tenure. With Laviolette, the team reached it’s true potential, even if it fell short of winning the ultimate prize.
Laviolette didn’t make a ton of friends in the media while he was here, but he wasn’t as bad as some made him out to be. I found him to be surprisingly honest and almost pleasant most of the time. After losses he was brusque and difficult to understand, but what NHL coach isn’t? Laviolette is human and reacts to adversity like most humans do.
Let’s not forget that Nashville got a much more sanitized and tame version of Laviolette than Philadelphia and Carolina. We rarely saw the furious outbursts that those fan bases became accustomed to and that, more often than not, turned fans off. It seems he adjusted his demeanor to fit a more content hockey crowd that just loved going to hockey games.
Though things got a little dicey in the end, I think it’s safe to say the Laviolette experience for Nashville hockey fans and media was a good one. The Nashville Predators saw unprecedented success, the team reached heights far greater than they imagined following the departure of Barry Trotz, and the franchise is in a better place than it was when he first arrived.
— Featured image via Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports —