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Predators coaching change more about players than Laviolette, Hynes

Goalies, special teams must improve for Nashville to make playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The Nashville Predators' coaching change was not about the coaches.

"It's not them," general manager David Poile said Tuesday. "It's our players. They have to make up their mind to play the way they can."

Poile made a huge statement by firing coach Peter Laviolette and assistant Kevin McCarthy on Monday and hiring coach John Hynes on Tuesday, hoping to jolt the Predators into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: NHL Tonight on Laviolette's firing

Rarely does Poile resort to this. He had three coaches in 15 seasons as GM of the Washington Capitals from 1982-97, changing coaches within a season twice. He had two coaches in his first 20 seasons as GM of the Predators before this, never changing coaches within a season.

Poile played down the idea of a shelf life for a coach, an easy, understandable reason to use considering Laviolette lasted longer with the Predators (2014-20) than he did with the New York Islanders (2001-03), the Carolina Hurricanes (2003-09) or the Philadelphia Flyers (2010-13).

"I really resist that," Poile said. "I never think it's one person's problem."

So what was the problem here, and why was this the solution?

The Predators went farther than ever before under Laviolette, making their first Stanley Cup Final in 2017, winning the Central Division for the first time in 2017-18 and winning the division again last season.

That raised expectations.

They lost in the Western Conference Second Round in 2017-18 and the first round last season, and they're in danger of missing the playoffs this season, five points out of the second wild card entering their game against the Boston Bruins at Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, FS-TN, NESN, NHL.TV).

"Personally, this has been the hardest year that I've ever had, because we've been totally unable to meet expectations," Poile said.

The Predators have been good 5-on-5, third in the NHL in goals (103) and sixth in shot attempts percentage (52.5). They're sixth in goals per game (3.44).

But their special teams have struggled, 23rd on the power play (16.8 percent) and 29th on the penalty kill (74.0 percent). So have their goalies, who are 17th in 5-on-5 save percentage (91.6 percent). They're 24th in goals against per game (3.27).

Poile said they have been inconsistent and unfocused, making inexplicable mistakes at inexplicable times. Other than defenseman Roman Josi, who leads the Predators with 44 points (14 goals, 30 assists), their best players have underperformed. 

Video: ARI@NSH: Josi fires home wrister from the point

"It always starts with your best players, and our best players weren't our best players, haven't been our best players, and they must become our best players if we're going to be successful," Poile said.

Hynes will have to fix that, but Poile seems more concerned with attitude than X's and O's.

Poile said he changed coaches because he couldn't change all the players, not that he wanted to change all the players. He built this team. He believes in it. The players now have a fresh start, a chance to reset their mindset.

"Every question leads back to the same thing to me," Poile said. "It was time to make a change, and we need to go in a different direction. If our new coach wants to have new line combinations, wants to scratch different players, wants to play a different system, it's his job. It was just working so-so with us, and it's time to have something a little bit different."

There is a history of underachieving teams changing coaches, turning things around and winning the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it in 2009 after replacing Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma. The Los Angeles Kings did it in 2012 after replacing Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter. The Penguins did it again in 2016 after replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan. The St. Louis Blues did it last season after replacing Mike Yeo with Craig Berube.

The Blues are freshest in everyone's minds. Remember, though, that they didn't turn things around until they changed goalies too. Jordan Binnington got hot, and the Blues found their game.

The Predators have the potential to go on a run. If they make the playoffs, that means they will have been playing their best hockey, and that means they will be a tough out. But they need more from goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. They need more from their forwards, in particular Mikael Granlund, Kyle Turris, Viktor Arvidsson, Nick Bonino and Ryan Johansen.

Video: NSH@PIT: Rinne makes back-to-back saves

"My message to the players was that I am responsible for this, I'm responsible for this change and I take that responsibility," Poile said. "But you as players have to share in the responsibility of what's taking place today."

When the GM who rarely changes coaches changes coaches, that ought to get their attention.

"It's very disappointing to be sitting here today doing this, and I'm really hoping that …" Poile said, his voice trailing off. "I mean, we have plenty of time, but we have to see a change."

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