Nashville Predators general manager David Poile recently told NHL.com that part of the reasoning behind head coach Peter Laviolette being hired was a need to improve the team’s offense. However, he’d be wrong to think Nashville was incapable of putting the puck in the net under Barry Trotz, the man Laviolette will be replacing.
Since after the 2004-05 lockout, when the Predators started establishing themselves as perennial playoff contenders, Nashville finished in the top half of league scoring four times, once as high as fifth (2006-07 with 3.24 goals per game).
So, the thought process that replacing Trotz automatically improves your team’s offense is a flawed one. Sure, the team did finish 30th in scoring in the 2013 lockout-shortened season (2.27), but, when your most dynamic offensive player is defenseman Shea Weber year after year, you’d think some of the blame would have to fall on Poile himself.
Looking at that 2013 roster, behind Weber the top three scorers were forwards or, for all intents and purposes, a top line. That “top line” comprised David Legwand, a notoriously defense-first forward, Mike Fisher, another notoriously defense-first forward, and Martin Erat, a player who, no joke, has scored just eight total times for three different teams over the last two seasons.
Is it really any wonder Trotz failed to ice an offensive juggernaut that season? Really, the only wonder should be how he was able to improve significantly upon that season’s 16-23-9 record.
This past year, the Predators placed 19th in scoring and posted a 38-32-12 record, with only Matt Cullen as Poile’s big-name addition to the team last summer. So, with largely the same lineup, Trotz was able to make do and lead the Preds to a decent 88-point campaign.
Admittedly the team did miss the playoffs for the second straight season, the first time that has happened since the lockout. And it may very well have been time for a change behind the bench. After all, Trotz has been the only coach this franchise has ever known. Maybe another will fare just as well...maybe even better.
And Poile is technically right about Laviolette tending to inject life into a team’s offense. In his eight complete seasons behind the bench, Laviolette-coached teams have finished in the top 10 in scoring six times. However, as impressive as that little factoid is, the key part of that sentence is “teams,” as in plural.
Laviolette has coached a total of three teams since 2001-02 (New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers), finishing out of the playoffs four times (he was also fired at the beginning of seasons in Carolina and Philadelphia before his teams had the chance to miss them), perhaps never as significantly as in 2006-07, the season after he captured the Stanley Cup.
That is maybe the most telling fact of all. Sure, Laviolette has had success whenever he’s behind the bench, but that success tends to be short-lived.
He was able to stay with both the Hurricanes and Flyers for parts of five seasons each (with the Islanders for only two), after which management had had enough. Five is not necessarily a bad number here, admittedly. It is when compared to the 15 Trotz managed to stay with Nashville, though.
Whether Laviolette will only be able to manage another five with Poile, a man who stayed with Trotz despite him missing the playoffs for five straight seasons from 1999-2003, is anyone’s guess at this point. Even if logic dictates Poile has a near-infinite amount of patience, that situation was very different.
Trotz was taking over an expansion team that showed improvement almost year after year. That’s why it’s unfair to question the team’s performance for his first few seasons. He was doing the best he could with a flawed roster handed to him by none other than Poile, which is eerily similar to the situation that led to his firing after these past two unsuccessful campaigns (with injuries also affecting the end results).
In spite of all his supposed offensive shortcomings, Trotz was hugely successful in terms of his teams’ defensive acumen and, for seven straight seasons, his teams placed in the top half of goals against, placing as high as third in 2010-11 (2.32).
Laviolette, meanwhile? Despite being a former defenseman, he’s the polar opposite. With exception to the 2010-11 Philadelphia Flyers, who finished 11th in terms of goals against (2.63), none of his teams have finished higher than 19th.
So, if Poile is looking for the best of both worlds—a head coach that can improve his team’s offense and still have it stay defensively responsible—he might as well be looking to have his cake and eat it too. It may yet work out, but the two likeliest scenarios are:
1. Laviolette turns the Preds into that offensive powerhouse Poile is seeking at the expense of its defense, or
2. Laviolette struggles to get the offense going because of the undermanned roster handed to him and still fails to keep the team responsible in its own zone
Considering the team’s strength for the future undeniably lies in that defense with names like Seth Jones, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis to build around Weber, the smart play on Poile’s part might have been to go after a coach like Guy Boucher. Boucher, of course, is known for his 1-3-1 defensive system and was most recently coaching in Switzerland.
That’s just one alternative, though. Or at least it would have been during the hiring process. Now the only option for Poile is to spend a significant amount of time this summer trying to beef up his offense, because Laviolette can’t do it alone.
“We have (goaltender Pekka) Rinne and Weber. If we can get a forward along those lines, we’re there,” Poile has gone on record as saying recently, according to CBC’s Elliotte Friedman.
Needless to say, Poile’s work is cut out for him. And if he fails now, ownership might have to hire a new GM...one who’s really capable of improving Nashville’s offense.