After a disappointing 19-15-7 record, a 3.27 goals-against average, a 74 percent penalty kill rate, and 16.8 percent power-play efficiency, the Nashville Predators made a decision seldom seen in the Music City: they fired their head coach, the first time they have done so mid-season.
Peter Laviolette was relieved of his duties on Jan. 6 after the Predators were fresh off of beating the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 on Jan. 4 and falling to the Anaheim Ducks 5-4 in the shootout the very next night.
The Ducks are a team the Predators need to beat considering they are desperate for points right now. But, there needs to be a little perspective put on the shootout loss. It was the second half of a back-to-back set, the Predators were battling significant injuries and absences such as Ryan Ellis, Matt Duchene and Dante Fabbro, and they came back to salvage a point after trailing 4-2 heading into the third period.
However, despite the somewhat “positive” bounce back after their loss in the Winter Classic, the Predators needed to fire Laviolette. Sitting five points back – at the time – of a wild card spot is certainly not acceptable for a team whose Stanley Cup-contending window is considered to be wide open.
As the saying goes, “you can’t fire the whole team” and so the struggles and lack of performance have to fall on someone’s shoulders, in this case, Laviolette’s. The Predators were the owners of the league’s worst power play last season, and, although better this season – as it couldn’t be worse – the man-advantage for the Predators is still severely underperforming. Then there’s the penalty kill, which as mentioned is barely above being dead-last and allowing a league-high 35 goals against.
Goaltending has also been an issue for the Predators this season. 37-year-old Pekka Rinne has a 14-9-3 record, a 3.06 goals-against average (GAA) and an .894 save percentage (SV%), while his backup, Juuse Saros, owns a 5-7-4 record, a 3.25 GAA and a .892 SV%, and in theory those numbers only stood to decline. Overall, the Predators have been fairly solid when it comes to allowing high-danger chances when playing 5-on-5. However, over Laviolette’s past 10 games with the Predators, Nashville allowed 12.5 high-quality scoring chances per 60 minutes, which ranked 25th in the league.
Nail in the Coffin
Some may argue that the writing was on the wall after the Predators lost to the Dallas Stars in the Winter Classic. Obviously, the decision to fire Laviolette was based on the season as a whole, rather than their New Year’s Day result. But, it was the way in which the Predators lost in their outdoor game that was most alarming. General manager David Poile mentioned in a Nashville radio interview on 104.5 The Zone that the result was too similar to many other games this season:
“The result of the game, and the game, looked like several other of our losses this year. Games where it looked like we had a chance to win … only to lose the game,” Poile said to the Midday 180 on Jan. 2. “We really have some soul searching to do right now.”
What made Laviolette’s departure somewhat confusing though was another comment Poile made in the same interview,
“Right now, [firing a coach] is not in my game plan. … I’m not contemplating making any coaching change at this time.”
Laviolette appeared to have the support of management the day after the crushing loss in the Winter Classic. However, since the vote of confidence, the Predators picked up three of four available points from their weekend back-to-back set in Southern California and that was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. You may be picking up on the facetiousness, as mentioned it was the season as a whole rather than any one or two games why Poile removed Laviolette of his duties. But the optics paired with the GM’s radio comments may have led several fans to scratch their heads over this one.
Nashville is halfway through their season, having played their 41st game this past Sunday night. There’s still time for the ship to be steered in the right direction, all is not lost for the Predators. Although they are five points behind the final wild-card spot, the Predators have games in hand over every Western Conference team. But, those games in hand are only worth something if you can win the games.
According to Money Puck, before their 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 7 the Predators still had a 73.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, the 12th best odds in the NHL. As of Jan. 8, the Predators’ odds have drastically dropped to 51.1 percent, which shows how much the league can change on a nightly basis. However, if the Predators can finish the month of January strong those odds could quickly revert back to the more favorable 70 percent.
The John Hynes Era
Before the fans and critics could even finish analyzing the news of the coaching change, Poile and the Predators found Laviolette’s replacement. John Hynes, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, will be just the third ever bench boss in Nashville and will attempt to restore the team back to contenders.
Putting aside the opinions of whether Hynes is the right person for the job – for now – the move says that management believes the Predators can still save this season and they haven’t given up. This doesn’t mean that the Predators will lean on the coaching change as their solution and will be dormant when the trade deadline arrives. After all, this is David Poile we’re talking about, a man never scared of pulling the trigger on a deal and who said the Predators were “open for business” when talking about the potential of a trade.
But, back to the important question at this point, is Hynes the man the Predators need? It’s a big question and warrants its own article, but there’s no harm in briefly addressing the change in Nashville.
The names in circulation before the ultimate decision was made were Peter DeBoer, assistant coaches Dan Lambert and Dan Muse, as well as Milwaukee Admirals head coach, Karl Taylor, who had been mentioned, but was reportedly not in consideration.
There’s a lot of skepticism about the hire among fans, which may be valid. Hynes is a month removed from being fired himself after leading New Jersey to a 9-13-4 record, the second-worst in the NHL. A disappointing start after an offseason filled with promise with the additions of the first-overall pick, Jack Hughes as well as ex-Predator, P.K. Subban. Hynes finished his tenure in New Jersey after posting an overall record of 150-159-45 and made the playoffs just once in the four seasons he was there.
Related: Devils Need a Reset, Not a Rebuild
On the flip side, Hynes is more of a defensive-minded coach than Laviolette and if they can clean up that area of their game it could alleviate many of the other problems. In fact, from 2017-18 up until being fired, Hynes lead New Jersey to the fourth-best penalty kill. In his last two full seasons in the Garden State, the Devils had the best penalty kill in the NHL over that collective span.
But, before the debacle of this season, the Predators were elite on the defensive end of the ice under Laviolette, despite him being so offensive-minded. Since he took over in 2014-15 up until the end of last season the Predators had the best goals-against average in the league and allowed the eighth-fewest shots-against per game.
This begs the question, did the Predators panic? Based on the stats it’s fair to say yes. The half-season struggles that they have experienced so far may not be a good representation of how the Predators can operate under the guidance of Laviolette.
However, the Predators are in a difficult position. The core of their team is in their prime and they are being paid handsomely for that play. Captain Roman Josi was recently handed an eight-year contract worth a little under $72.5 million. The Predators have no time to write off aberrant seasons. Plus, Laviolette was never able to get the Predators over the hump in the playoffs.
Other than their Stanley Cup Final run in 2017, the Predators’ postseason appearances cannot be described as anything less than disappointing. Nashville made the playoffs every season under Laviolette, but lost in the first-round twice and the second-round twice.
Regardless of the analysis, the Predators have their coach that they believe can fix their struggles. January will reveal a lot about the rest of the season for the team in the Music City. Yes, there’s still half a season of hockey left to be played and there has been the sentiment from some that there’s still a lot of time. But, Rinne summed it up best to The Tennessean, saying, “Time is, at the same time, running out. You’ve got to change the way you do things. Just bottom line, enough talking. We’ve got to start playing.” (from ‘Even with coaching change, Predators need to figure out what’s wrong before they can fix it,’ The Tennessean, 01/07/2020)