A massive coaching firing in the NHL leaves major questions about what caused the move. Today, we’ll look at what role the Nashville Predators’ goaltenders played in their longtime head coach’s firing. Then, we’ll check in on a goalie’s first appearance against his former squad.
Laviolette, Rinne, and Saros
“Show me a good goalie and I’ll show you a good coach.”
So goes the old hockey saying, and it is often truer than many care to admit. teams cannot succeed with struggling goalies. It’s no coincidence that as of Monday evening, three of the five teams with the worst team save percentage (SV%) in the league have fired their head coach. In fact, the only reason that the Los Angeles Kings and the Detroit Red Wings have not is that they are involved in longterm rebuilding projects and have no need to win now.
But entering Monday, the second-worst San Jose Sharks (tied at .889 team SV%) and the New Jersey Devils (tied for fourth at .890) had fired their head coach. And by the end of the day, the other team tied for second-worst, the Predators (.889), had publicly parted ways with longtime head coach Peter Laviolette.
The Predators have not announced a replacement but decided that Monday was the time to fire the second man ever to serve as their franchise’s head coach. The announcement came after a skid of one win in their last five games, one that included an embarrassing and very public collapse against the Dallas Stars at the Winter Classic.
So what role did goaltending play in Laviolette’s departure? A glance at his former goalies’ numbers suggests that they were a major factor in his dismissal.
No one doubts that at his best, Pekka Rinne is amongst the best goalies in the entire league. But the 2019-20 season has hardly been his best. He is 14-8-3 but carries an .896 SV% and a 2.98 goals-against average (GAA). He is tied for the league lead in shutouts at three but is recording a quality start — meaning that his SV% for a game passes the league’s SV% on the season — just under 46 percent of the time.
Unfortunately for Predators fans, their young backup, Juuse Saros, expected to one day replace his fellow Finnish netminder, has not fared any better. He is 5-7-4, with a 3.25 GAA and an .892 SV%. His quality start percentage is slightly better, at 52.9 percent, but he has yet to record a shutout this season.
Are the Goalies to Blame?
More troubling than anything else, Rinne and Saros rank sixth and fifth-worst respectively in the league in goals saved above average. This metric measures a goalie’s ability to make saves against his peers. Rinne’s minus-8.26 mark and Saros’ minus-9.07 number are neither one remotely acceptable and certainly have contributed to Nashville’s struggles this season.
But as much as a good goalie is often if not always behind a great coach, a coach’s failures can never be blamed on any individual player. The Predators have plenty of talent and were viewed as a Stanley Cup contender entering the season. Laviolette’s failure to harness that talent may not be entirely his own, but it was enough for the Predators to decide a change was needed at the top.
Varlamov Stymies Former Team
Semyon Varlamov played 389 games for the Colorado Avalanche in his career, before signing a four-year, $20 million deal with the New York Islanders this summer. It was a vexing deal at the time, as the Islanders had to let Robin Lehner walk out the door to facilitate it. But Varlamov’s proved to be worth it so far, going 14-5-3 with a .920 SV%, a 2.40 GAA, and 8.52 GSAA.
Playing behind the same stout Barry Trotz defense that helped Lehner and Islanders’ backup Thomas Greiss win the Jennings Trophy last season has been fantastic for Varlamov. But on Monday, he faced one of the biggest tests yet in his new home: his former team, the Avalanche, were coming to town.
Varlamov came ready to play and made his old team look foolish with a 32-save shutout. The Islanders didn’t do much better against Pavel Francouz, but their one goal was enough to give their starter the win against his former team. For those in the calendar-circling mood, Varlamov will return to Denver to meet the Avalanche in his old arena on Feb. 19.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.