No interim coach or new head coach was immediately named. The Predators face the Boston Bruins at home Tuesday night.
With Laviolette out, who’s in? How much of this was his fault? Will the Preds make any trades before the deadline to bolster their playoff chances? And where does the veteran coach land next? Let’s dive in to all the big questions.
Did Peter Laviolette write this question? The Predators are by no means a disaster or in a free fall, sitting four points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference with three games in hand. They’re a middling 19-15-7, but on the plus side of goal differential.
The timing is a real surprise given the man doing the firing: David Poile, the only general manager in franchise history. He has had only five coaches in his 37 years as an NHL general manager. The Predators have had only two coaches in their history tracking back to 1998, in Barry Trotz and Laviolette. Trotz was fired after the season. Speculation was that if it were to happen to Laviolette, it would also be in the offseason. Heck, it was just on Jan. 2 that Poile said on the Midday 180 radio show in Nashville that “right now, [firing a coach] is not in my game plan. … I’m not contemplating making any coaching change at this time.”
But he also said something else in that interview, about the manner in which the Predators blew a 2-0 lead in the Winter Classic against Dallas: “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. We really have some soul searching to do right now.”
Perhaps Poile saw a pattern that wasn’t changing for a team he built and decided enough was enough.
How much of this falls on Laviolette?
Obviously, whenever a team doesn’t meet expectations and fails to find consistency, some of that has to fall on the coach. But how much?
The Predators have the second best goals scored percentage (56.28) at 5-on-5 in the NHL. On special teams, they’re 24th on the power play (16.8) and 29th on the penalty kill (74.0). Just like great goaltending can lead to increased praise of a coach, mediocre goaltending can lead to one getting fired. The Predators are third from the bottom in team save percentage (.889) this season.
It’s a reasonable assessment that had Laviolette gotten better special-teams play and a save once in a while, he’s still coaching the Predators. Alas, he is not.
After so much dominance by Pekka Rinne in the Predators’ crease, this season has been … not so great. How does that factor in here?
The Predators have felt like they’ve been treading water all season, and the goaltending is a big reason. Rinne started strong (7-0-2, .920 save percentage) in October. The next month, he was 2-4 with an .857 save percentage. For the season, their 37-year-old goalie is a conundrum: a .923 even-strength save percentage, but an .896 save percentage overall thanks to that porous penalty kill. He has only 1.1 goals saved above average this season, and only .458 of his starts have reached the “quality start” threshold.
But it’s backup Juuse Saros who has been the bust this season, with a 5-7-4 record and a .897 even-strength save percentage. He has a goals saved above average of 0.5, which ranks him 51st in the NHL.
Both goalies haven’t given the Predators anywhere near the kind of goaltending they’ve taken for granted in the past; for example, each goalie was pulled in a loss against Pittsburgh in back-to-back games. “They’re not the whole problem, but they’re part of the problem. And they have to be better, too,” said Poile.
So who’s taking over as coach?
Apparently, Poile announces in-season firings like Gary Bettman announces Winter Classics: with an incomplete picture of the event. We know Laviolette is gone. We know Kevin McCarthy, the assistant coach that was hired with him in 2014, is gone. What we don’t know, as of Monday night, is what comes next.
There are two assistant coaches left on the Predators’ staff in Dan Lambert, a former Rochester Americans head coach hired last summer to “fix” the power play, and Dan Muse, who has spent three seasons as an assistant coach under Laviolette after serving as a head coach for two seasons in the USHL. Karl Taylor is the team’s AHL coach, but beat writer Adam Vingan reports that he doesn’t appear to be in consideration on an interim basis.
What about some of the coaches that recently lost their jobs? Former San Jose coach Peter DeBoer has said he hasn’t been contacted about the Predators opening, and was due $3 million annually from the Sharks through 2021. John Hynes, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, has some years left on his deal as well, but has a connection with Nashville assistant GM Jeff Kealty, who played with Hynes at Boston University.
Then there’s former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babocck, but he can certainly pick his spot, with Toronto owing him north of $20 million total through 2023. (Babcock, it should be said, needs to do some image rehab before taking another gig, after accusations of mental abuse by former players.)
Do we expect Poile to make any deals ahead of the deadline?
Absolutely. Never one to shy away from a trade, Poile has already proclaimed that the Predators are “open for business” after having an organizational meeting with his hockey operations department in Dallas after the Winter Classic. According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has five picks in the first three rounds of this year’s draft and could have upward of $8 million in deadline cap space.
What are their chances of making the playoffs?
Money Puck has the Predators with a 74.2% chance at making the playoffs, the 11th-best odds in the NHL. Again, the team has been good at 5-on-5; if they can figure out something with the penalty kill and get one of these goalies on a roll, a wild card or third place in the Central isn’t out of the question.
Where does Laviolette go from here?
My bold prediction for 2020 was that Laviolette gets fired in Nashville and then gets hired as the first head coach of the Seattle expansion franchise. First, because he’s a great coach that any team would want to have, especially a startup. Second, because NHL coaches are creatures of ego, and who wouldn’t want to mold and shape a new team in their own image from scratch, especially after seeing how fun that was for Gerard Gallant in Vegas?
What was the highlight of Laviolette’s time in Nashville?
Leading the Predators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, despite losing in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their roll through the West, including a first-round sweep of the Blackhawks, was a defining moment for the organization, and it permanently etched Smashville onto the hockey map. And they did it all as the fourth place team in the Central that regular season.
How do we grade the deal?
I’ll give it a B, pending the announcement of the replacement. As we’ve stated, Laviolette is an upper-echelon coach in the NHL. Even if his message wasn’t resonating, the Predators were still a very good team, save for the penalty kill and the sudden mediocrity of his netminders.
Perhaps this is what kick starts the Nashville rise in the standings with a different voice. Or perhaps the next guy finds the same cow patties in the pasture, to use a Nashville colloquialism.