As we sit at the midpoint of the 2019-2020 NHL, Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile made the difficult and monumental decision to fire coaches Peter Laviolette and Kevin McCarthy, the coaches who have led the Predators to the greatest run of success in the organization’s history. Laviolette exits Nashville with a final regular season record of 248-143-60 which is a 0.616 points percentage. Following a 19-15-7 start, the Predators find themselves sitting outside the playoff picture which is a stark downturn for a team that won the Central Division the past two seasons and returned largely the same roster. A hot start through October quickly led to an extended run of inconsistency which saw the Predators drop down the standings.
Peter Laviolette’s seat started to get hot as lineup changes including scratching Kyle Turris for seven straight games and public motivational comments didn’t result in any consistently improved play. In fairness, goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have been at the bottom of the league all season in terms of save percentage across all situations but nothing of the team game seemed to change.
Things seemed to be looking up leading into the Christmas break with a 4-0-1 run that brought the Predators back on the cusp of a playoff spot. However, what followed was the apparent last straw with a 1-3-1 stretch including two miserable losses to the undermanned Penguins and a frankly embarrassing performance in the most public venue possible, the Winter Classic. Now, the team finds itself four points out of the wild card and only one point ahead of last place in the Central Division.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
It had all gone so well. Peter Laviolette and Kevin McCarthy came in to change the Predators’ style after Barry Trotz was not renewed and the effect was almost immediate. The playoff results started to come too as the Predators went to the second round twice and a Stanley Cup final in Laviolette’s first three seasons. However a few themes started to creep in starting in that third year. First, the playoff success dwindled from a second round exit to a first round exit to now outside the playoffs which took the luster off the Predators as a Stanley Cup contender.
Second, Peter Laviolette’s offensive system (which I detailed more thoroughly here and power play scheme became predictable and opponents were able to game plan effectively. Laviolette never seemed to make any real adjustments to the scheme. This system also worked well when the team was not flush with high end offensive pieces and needed the direct attack across four lines to be successful but now multiple scoring forwards (primarily Johansen, Granlund and Duchene) have arrived and seen their career averages drop rather precipitously. A quick look at Ineffective Math’s isolated coach impact shows how Laviolette limits offensive production, especially in front of the net:
Laviolette’s lineup management had come under fire as well. The “Lavy line blender” was all too well known among the Predators fanbase as especially forward lines, even those that were working well, seemed to change on a game by game basis. On any given night the pregame skate lines could find Filip Forsberg skating on the 4th line.
Also, Laviolette had a penchant for relying on safer lineups with a lower ceiling than utilizing better skilled players. Miikka Salomaki, Matt Irwin, and Yannick Weber have all seen regular ice time in recent seasons while higher end prospects like Rem Pitlick and Frederic Allard play in Milwaukee. All of these items put together reflect a coaching style that is predicated on direct attack that became predictable with lineups that are wholly unpredictable. When it works it causes confusion and chaos for the opposition but once they were able to gameplan for Laviolette’s Predators teams the advantages disappeared quickly.
Questions… So Many Questions
How much were the players, and more specifically the leadership group, involved?
Let’s be honest, coaches with Laviolette’s recent history of multiple division titles and a Cup appearance in the past 3 years generally don’t get fired. While it’s been a disappointing season thus far the Preds are hardly out of the playoff race. Also, it seems odd that the Predators goalies would both fall so far off a cliff at the same time. So it stands to reason that something else was going on. I do not claim to be a locker room insider by any stretch but I have a feeling that there were some voices in the room advocating for a change.
Who’s up next?
The seemingly out of nowhere fashion of the announcement combined with the lack of a replacement left many questions in the minds of both Predators fans and hockey media in general. Would there be an internal replacement as an interim, say Dan Lambert? Would it be Karl Taylor, who is doing an excellent job in Milwaukee with the Admirals? Would the Predators hire a recently fired coach like Mike Babcock (no), Peter DeBoer or John Hynes? These questions have only been amplified by GM David Poile preventing any leaks from his organization such that even the most plugged-in NHL media insiders had nothing to report.
Now in the morning after, we got our answer. John Hynes, who was fired by the New Jersey Devils in December, will be the next Nashville Predators head coach. Hynes compiled a 150-159-45 regular season record over 4+ seasons in New Jersey including a playoff berth in the 2017-2018 season. The Devils took a significant step back in 2018-2019, but also only got 33 games from reigning Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. The 2019-2020 season started poorly again but also dealt with Taylor Hall spending time injured and the Devils receiving some of the worst goaltending in the league. Comparing Hynes to Laviolette using Ineffective Math’s coaching isolates, it would appear Hynes will reduce the negative impact on the offense and stabilize the defense in front of Rinne and Saros.
Assuming he also frees up Dan Lambert to fully run the power play, there is hope for a turn around.
What can we expect?
While teams often see a bump after a coaching change, the Predators are in a tough spot. Ryan Ellis is still out for an undetermined period thanks to Corey Perry’s unrepentant elbow and Dante Fabbro has missed the last two games with an undisclosed upper body injury. Rinne and Saros are still mired in the worst seasons of their careers and until that improves, the ceiling for the Predators is pretty low. If Coach Hynes can provide a new voice, a new energy and some new schemes then the team could jumpstart the second half and push back into playoff contention.
Thank You Coach Laviolette and Coach McCarthy
Peter Laviolette and Kevin McCarthy brought a new era of Predators hockey. They quickly made the team more enjoyable to watch and created a level of success never experienced before in Nashville. The Predators achieved their first ever division titles (twice), their first ever President’s Trophy and most of all their first ever Cup Final appearance. The growth they fostered helped grow hockey in Nashville through hosting an all-star weekend and showing the league what a Cup Final in Smashville is all about. Nashville is a legitimate hockey destination and that would not be the same today without Coach Laviolette and Coach McCarthy.
My final words to them will be thank you. Thank you for the success you brought on the ice and the work you did off of it. Thank you for being class acts and helping grow the game of hockey in Nashville. Best of luck in your next opportunity, I’m sure you will do great work there as well.
Statistics courtesy of IneffectiveMath, hockey-reference.com and NHL.com