Who would have thought that the latest hit act to grace Nashville is Peter Laviolette and his Nashville Predators?
Amazingly but not surprisingly Peter Laviolette is making his mark as the second head coach in Predators franchise history; overseeing Nashville’s best head start since the 2005/06 season. After two weeks of regular season play Nashville remains atop the Central Division and is presently second only to Montreal in the entire NHL.
This start is a brilliant re-affirmation of Peter Laviolette’s coaching brilliance. After being fired three games into the 2013/14 season, Laviolette struggled with personal legal and financial problems (last year he and his wife filed suit against their bank for alleged faulty investment advice which subsequently cost the Laviolette family substantial monies); while this was going on Laviolette quietly returned to hockey by serving as an assistant coach to Dan Bylsma with Team USA Men’s hockey team in Sochi Winter Olympics. While helping the team earn the silver medal, Laviolette was also working closely with Team USA general manager David Poile (who also is GM of the Predators). Nashville last season was retrogressing once more after a lackluster 2013 season. Once again they failed to reach the playoffs.
David Poile decided to pull the trigger and to replace Barry Trotz he looked no further than Peter Laviolette in what has to be a complete tactical makeover for the Predators.
Whereas Barry Trotz emphasized defense and goal-tending, Laviolette is renowned for his teams’ offensive output, especially on the power-play.
In terms of team statistics, the changes appear rather faint. Nashville had the 20th best offense last season. Right now they are 17th in goals scored. Defensively though they have improved dramatically, regaining their overall team defensive form; ranking 9th in the NHL whereas last season they were a dismal 24th.
Their weaknesses right now are on special teams. Nashville’s power play remains munificent and their penalty-killing is weaker still.
Interestingly Nashville’s penchant for on-ice discipline (long inculcated by Barry Trotz) endures even now. (That’s a surprise considering that Peter Laviolette’s squads in the past were never reluctant to mix it up physically on the ice or rack up the penalty minutes to prove a point on the ice).
When you see Nashville in action (for example their 3-2 defeat of Chicago on October 24) what you’re seeing is the classic Peter Laviolette oeuvre of Pressure Hockey: constant penetration and trying to create mismatches in the offensive zone; strong checking in the neutral and defensive zones; and generating turnovers and creating offensive scoring chances.
Laviolette (unlike his last couple seasons in Philadelphia) is blessed with a well disciplined blue-line corps and strong goaltending, well grounded in the hockey fundamentals. Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne are All-Star talents with Rinne returning back to his classic form after being dogged with injuries last year.
What is needed is greater strength on the forward lines. Youngster Filip Forsberg and veterans Mark Ribeiro and James Neal are Laviolette’s main triggermen for right now but veteran centers Mike Fisher and Matt Cullen are out with injuries and their absence is sorely felt.
Nashville remains atop the Central Division but the question remains can they maintain their lofty perch? Nashville has never won a divisional title in their entire history thus far. It’s a daunting challenge but Peter Laviolette has guided teams through sterner challenges than this before. Nashville is responding to Laviolette’s aggressive approach and showing verve against long-time tougher opponents. Their defeat of Chicago was an amazing display of endurance and character. After allowing Chicago to draw first blood they responded with three straight goals (all scored by James Neal). Even when Chicago drew close with a goal in the third period, Nashville refused to collapse and hung on to clinch the clutch win.
Peter Laviolette is back where he belongs: behind the bench of an NHL team, helping Nashville to live up to its franchise name: Predators instead of prey.