General managers don’t come more patient than David Poile. He’s helmed the Nashville Predators since their inaugural season, 1998-99, and employed a grand total of two head coaches over that span. Across 37 NHL seasons, Poile has employed five coaches, so his bench bosses average seven 7.4 years per term.
We know, then, that Poile gave Peter Laviolette as much rope as possible. Something simply had to give for a team that has disappointed since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2016-17 and winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2017-18. Laviolette, fired purely for hockey reasons, can exit with dignity. In that 2017 playoff run, he became the first coach ever to bring a No. 16 overall playoff seed to the Cup final, and his .616 points percentage across exactly 5.5 seasons with the Preds gave them the NHL’s sixth-best record over that stretch, trailing only the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins.
Laviolette is one of the more successful coaches of his generation. He won a 2006 Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes and, before getting Nashville there, brought the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup final. He’s built a reputation as a turnaround artist. The 2000-01 New York Islanders had the league’s worst record before almost doubling their point total and making the playoffs under Laviolette in 2001-02. The Canes hired him partway 2003-04 in a non-playoff year before winning it all the following season. The Flyers Cup final berth came after they hired him for the final 57 games of that regular season. The Preds had missed the playoffs two straight years before Laviolette got them back there for the most successful five-year run in their history.
It’s not always news when “Team struggles, team hires new coach, team fares better,” but it’s worth nothing just how quickly Laviolette has elevated franchises. Counting only the 13 seasons in which he coached the entire schedule, his teams have ranked in the top half of the league in shots on goal all 13 times, including 10 times in the top 10, and the top half in goals 12 of 13 times, including four times in the top five. His teams forecheck and score proficiently and, if you look at what he’s worked with coaching the Islanders (no superstars, opportunistic), Hurricanes (veteran offense, breakout young star Eric Staal), Flyers (juggernaut offense, MVP-level Claude Giroux, power forwards) and Predators (offense running through the D-corps), he’s shown he can win many different ways by adapting to whatever a GM gives him to work with.
Laviolette, then, is an obvious candidate to land on his feet soon with a new team. Which ones would be the best fits?
1. DETROIT RED WINGS
Jeff Blashill has a thankless job in Detroit given how little he’s had to work with across his 4.5 seasons there. But it’s a common practice for a teams to tip its cap to whichever coach dutifully shepherded it through its rebuild – then move on to a coach who intends to transition the team to a winner. Blashill is also a holdover hire from the previous regime, so perhaps new GM Steve Yzerman would like to choose his own long-term coach. The Wings are terrible right now largely because they’re slow-cooking their rapidly improving crop of prospects. Laviolette would have some interesting clay to mold in Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno and Moritz Seider, not to mention the established contributors such as Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi, and the Wings are poised to lead the 2020 draft in ping-pong balls, too.
2. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
John Hynes failed up, taking over Laviolette’s Nashville gig five weeks after getting pink-slipped by the Devils. Could we work this as a de facto coach-for-coach trade, then? The Devils haven’t responded much under interim coach Alain Nasreddine, losing nine of 15 games, so we’ve seen little so far to suggest he’ll be their long-term hire. Eric Staal broke out as a star under Laviolette’s watch, so, given Laviolette's tendency to deploy high-octane offenses, could we see Jack Hughes catch fire next season? The Devils’ goaltending has been maligned, yes, but they currently ice the league’s No. 29 offense. Hughes, Nico Hischier and, eventually, blueliner Ty Smith could blossom under a veteran bench boss like Laviolette, as could whomever New Jersey gets with a high draft pick this June.
3. WINNIPEG JETS
Paul Maurice’s job is safe for now. He’s been pretty beloved in Winnipeg, especially by the media thanks to his endlessly quotable pressers and earnestness. And the Jets have matured into one of the most talented teams in the NHL over the past few seasons. Aside from a 2018 Western Conference final berth, however, they’ve underachieved relative to expectations. Sometimes, a good coach just can’t get a team over the hump to make it great. That’s why Mike Babcock had to go in Toronto. The Jets currently hold a one-point lead over the Calgary Flames for the last Western Conference wildcard spot. While losing half their defense corps over the summer is partially to blame, a playoff miss would still feel inexcusable for a Jets roster with this many great players. Might Maurice might have to fall on the sword if that happens? Captain Blake Wheeler only has so many good years left. Given Laviolette’s vast experience, he’d be a fine plug-and-play replacement. Dropped into the middle of a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, he wouldn’t blink.
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