You have heard it so many times already, I realize: “Peter Laviolette is just the second coach in Predators history!”
Some perspective here: since the Predators began play in October of 1998, the New York Islanders have had 11 coaches and New Jersey has had 10.
Ken Hitchcock, now with St. Louis, has coached four different teams against Nashville (Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus and the Blues). Mike Keenan (working in the KHL as this is written) has run the bench for Vancouver, Florida, Boston and Calgary. Darryl Sutter has won two Stanley Cups with the Kings, but he has also had the reins in San Jose and Calgary since Nashville joined the NHL.
Bottom line - the average length of time for a head coach’s tenure is short, so the change here is a major one for the organization, as it has never happened before.
Now, to the team’s outlook for 2014-15: And it all starts with goaltending. Thankfully, Pekka Rinne recovered late last season after missing 51 games and was able to get into some late-season NHL action. Perhaps most importantly, he was healthy for the World Championships in Minsk and played well enough for his native Finland to be the tournament’s MVP. That helped him get over whatever physical and psychological hurdles he may have otherwise had to deal with in training camp here. When you can start with one of the best between the pipes, you have a great foundation.
Let’s continue with the defense. Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Seth Jones are all highly regarded throughout the NHL. Ryan Ellis had a solid breakthrough season last year and can build on that, as did Mattias Ekholm. Add free agent signee Anton Volchenkov - who may block as many shots as his goaltender on a given night - to Victor Bartley and the defense is solid.
It is up front that most of the changes have been made in the offseason. General Manager David Poile has been extremely busy. First, he traded perennial 20-goal scorer Patric Hornqvist, along with forward Nick Spaling, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The return on that deal: winger James Neal, who has had six 20-goal seasons (split between Dallas and Pittsburgh), including 40 in 2012 with the Pens. That gives Nashville just the second player in team history who has ever scored 40 in a single season. Paul Kariya had one 50-goal campaign and two more with 40-plus while with Anaheim.
The Neal trade was just the start of the club’s offensive makeover. On July 2nd, forward Olli Jokinen was signed as a free agent. Jokinen had four 30-goal seasons with the Florida Panthers and has over 300 goals in his NHL career.
Early in July, the team was hit with the news of Mike Fisher’s Achilles injury, so they realized they needed more help down the middle.
On July 15th, Derek Roy, who has registered four 20-goal seasons (including one with 32) with Buffalo, and Mike Ribeiro, who has averaged 20 goals and 45 assists per NHL season, were both signed to free agent deals.
Fortified with those moves, and looking forward to the continued development of Craig Smith and hopeful that Colin Wilson can follow in Smith’s lead, the team should be better offensively heading into the season. Mike Fisher should be back with the team in the first half, perhaps pushing some of his teammates even further.
Every team in the Central Division appears to be better as the season begins. Indeed, the Central Division of the NHL may not only be the toughest division in hockey, it may be the most competitive in professional sports.
Now it’s time to do what we have all been anxiously awaiting; drop the puck!