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Early returns positive for Predators' Laviolette

by John Manasso

NASHVILLE -- As the Nashville Predators prepared for a meeting that preceded their season opener on Thursday, general manager David Poile stood in the runway glancing at the players and coaching staff in the dressing room whom he had assembled. Poile admitted to being anxious.

Even for one of the longest-tenured general managers in NHL history, it was understandable. For the first time since 1998, Poile had hired a new coach in Peter Laviolette who brought a new style, and, as a consequence, Poile had remade the roster.

If Nashville's season opener is any indication, then the early returns are positive. The Predators outshot the Ottawa Senators 37-20 and, while down by a goal in the third period, struck three times within a span of less than nine minutes to earn a 3-2 victory.

New coach Peter Laviolette has brought a different style of play to the Nashville Predators, hoping to lead an offensive revival in the Music City. (Photo: Nashville Predators)

Nashville ranked 23rd in the NHL last season in shots per game (29.0) and tied for 18th in the NHL in goals-for per game (2.61). As a team that has struggled offensively for the past couple of seasons, the opener brought some welcoming sights.

The hope is that the new coach can keep it up. Nonetheless, Laviolette said the Predators are not nearly as far along in learning his system as they eventually will get.

"I think that training camp was really good in the sense that we did our best to push the pace on the guys and really get them skating and charging up and down the ice," he said. "I think as far as the system goes, we worked on pieces of it throughout camp. I don’t think any team is probably really where they want to be. I think they've got a good foundation laid for what they hope, we hope will lead us to success, and from there we have to work and build on that every day …

"We got a long way to go. Every day will be working towards getting better."

Toward the second half of last season, Poile seemed to conclude what the Predators were doing offensively was not working. He kept talking about wanting "a different look" for Nashville's corps of forwards. Publicly during the season, he seemed to point the finger more at the players but at season's end he decided to replace Barry Trotz, the only coach the Predators had ever had, and go with a new philosophy.

Trotz emphasized two-way play and puck possession. His goalies and defensemen flourished while the forwards, at times, were lacking. Laviolette will look to use an aggressive forechecking system that also allows defensemen to jump into the play offensively. To install such a system, as Laviolette said, that meant a lot of skating during camp.

"It was great," said right wing James Neal, Nashville's highest-profile offseason acquisition, of camp. "Up tempo, fast -- all the things I think I've seen before with his Flyers teams, his Hurricanes teams. We played a lot against each other, being in Pittsburgh and playing against Philly. We had big rivalries and that playoff series we had was crazy against Philly. Pretty familiar with he likes to do. You like the way he coaches. You like the way he goes about things. He's been a great change for everybody in here. Everyone's going to play for hard for him and excited to do that."

Prior to Laviolette's arrival, Poile already had begun to alter the composition of the Predators defense corps. Its strength is its mobility, making it suited towards jumping into the rush -- players like captain Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm. Poile said last season, much as in the way he built the United States entry for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, that he believed a more mobile and offensive defense was the direction in which the game was going. So, in a way, Nashville's defense corps began to change before its coach did.

That puts Laviolette in a position to capitalize. Weber, who led all NHL defensemen in goals last season with 23, scored the go-ahead goal on Thursday deep in the offensive zone, pinching in and skating behind the net to convert a wraparound attempt. Both Laviolette and Weber said the goal was an instinctive play, unrelated to the coach's new system. Yet under Trotz, one would rarely if ever find a defenseman behind the opposing net in the third period, especially in a game in which his side was not losing.

"Our defensemen have the green light to get up and join the rush," Laviolette said. "There was a look there (Weber) saw and he took it, and then coming out the other side and finding its way in. Certainly, our defensemen, they can push from the backside and (join) the offense."

Perhaps a new coach, one with a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree, is the kind of jolt the Predators needed. Trotz got them to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in both 2011 and 2012 before Nashville failed to qualify the following two seasons.

Laviolette said just as the players are still learning his system, so he continues to learn their personalities and to get to know them.

"It's new for a lot of people," he said. "It's new for a guy like James. It's new for me. Even for the guys that have been here, there's been enough change where they're learning as well. I think those relationships will build over time. It's just coming to work with each other on a daily basis that will help build those relationships."

Weber ranks among a handful of Predators who played under Trotz for years. He talked about the adjustment to having a new personality behind the bench.

"It's been good," he said. "Sometimes a fresh face and a new voice is good, and I think it's been really good for our team this year. Players have reacted well, at least from talking to guys in the room. Everyone seems to like where we're headed and what he's trying to do."

In addition to coaching an offensive style, Laviolette is known for having a fiery personality. While it's very early into his tenure, the players have seen some glimpses of that.

"It's been coming in spurts in practice," said Neal, who described Laviolette as very personable. "But the biggest thing is how passionate he is about our team and about the game. He's a good speaker. He gets the guys going."

Weber said Laviolette's competitiveness is evident.

"Every time he talks, he's intense," said Weber, who is not the vocal type but smolders with intensity. "It's good. It's a good thing to have because it trickles down to guys in here and the way we're feeling and hopefully the way we're going to play."

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