For all their failings, the Nashville Predators managed to do one thing that none of the other recent expansion franchises ever did. They created a distinct identity.
And today, they threw it out the window.
It's about time.
The decision to hire Peter Laviolette to replace Barry Trotz behind the bench was a bold stroke, a clean break from their hardworking but stuck-in-neutral past. Not that the man who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup can turn this group of plumbers, grunts and greenhorns into a scoring machine over night, but his arrival proves that GM David Poile finally recognized the need for a philosophical re-set.
"He is a great hockey mind who not only has a winning resume, but has done it with an aggressive offensive philosophy while also excelling in helping young players reach their potential," Poile said.
And there it is. The Preds don't ice anybody who makes a defense lose sleep, but at least there are some kids in the system--Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok among them--who have a chance to become dangerous top-six forwards. Under Laviolette, they'll have a chance to grow, to make mistakes and figure out how to use their tools to create havoc in the offensive zone.
Won't that be something?
"I love the nucleus of this team, starting on the back end with two of the best players at their positions in defenseman Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne, in addition to a solid group of dependable veterans and talented, rising young talent," Laviolette said, paying homage to the vets (and reminding everyone that no, Weber should not be traded). "My challenge will be to impart a system that enables our young forwards to thrive and reach their offensive potential. Being a perennial Stanley Cup contender requires buy-in, passion and commitment from every player on the roster. I can’t wait to get to Nashville and get started on our journey."
And it will be a journey. Laviolette, who is in Minsk coaching the United States at the 2014 World Championship, has his work cut out for him as he tries to nurture an offense that scored only 2.61 goals per game into a top-10 attack. Nashville had just two forwards--Patric Hornqvist and Craig Smith--who managed to top the 50-point barrier in 2013-14. He's never been saddled with so little firepower in his coaching career.
But he does have a track record for getting the most out of his talent. His first year in New York saw the Islanders jump from 52 to 96 points. He took a Carolina team that finished 23rd overall the previous season and guided them to the only Cup win in franchise history. In Philly, he turned turned an 88-point lightweight into a 106-point contender.
Good things can happen with Laviolette at the helm. But different things will only happen if Poile does his job.
This hiring puts the pressure squarely on the GM to provide Laviolette with the players who can help make his plan succeed. For all of Trotz's failings, he wasn't the one who drafted defensemen in the first round year after year, or who invested his free agent millions in glorified checkers.
If he's committing to Laviolette, Poile has to break from his own bad habits. He has to shop differently. Smarter.
We'll get a better sense of whether he's ready to do that this summer, but at least having Laviolette on board should make Nashville a more desirable destination for free agents. That's a step toward a new identity right there.