Nearly a quarter of the way into the 2014-15 season, it’s no longer necessary to qualify commentary with “it’s a small sample size but …” as the Nashville Predators sit atop the Central Division at 12-4-2. At this stage, I find it worth highlighting certain players who benefit the most under Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s regime.
But Stu… How is Olli Jokinen benefiting under Laviolette? He’s pointless in 18 games this season! Exactly. In spite of the fact that “Joki” has been unable to find the back of the net, Laviolette keeps pushing him minutes - into the mid-teens on most nights. And so he should.
Jokinen is a big-bodied veteran of nearly 1,200 games. He is solid in his own end, he wins more than his share of puck battles; and he’s creating as well as getting looks/chances at the other end. I’ve heard Laviolette say on more than one occasion that he’s more concerned about a player’s quality of play rather than his actual statistical production. In fact, he’s made that very point when talking about Jokinen’s contribution specifically.
So what’s my point? Jokinen is being afforded an opportunity – one that he’s earned – to play his way through a little offensive snakebite. Due to the fact that he plays under a coach that sees the value of his game beyond the numbers. Laviolette has taken this approach with others also and it’s paid off. See Calle Jarnkrok, Taylor Beck and Craig Smith.
Mattias Ekholm came to camp a better player by 20 percent to start the year. He is faster, stronger and looking right at home defending against top-six competition.
A key part of the Laviolette structure involves the defenders activating up into the attack; mindful that you have to recover back and be responsible on the other side of the puck also. I didn’t see it before this year, but Ekholm has this feature in his game. The blueliner possesses great offensive instincts and the first step comes quick when he decides to go. Laviolette has referred to Ekholm as one of his “steadiest players at both ends.” Laviolette’s approach is a tailored fit for No. 14. The proof is in the fact that Ekholm and Ryan Ellis appear to have taken over as the number-two pairing.
Laviolette covets offense. James Neal was acquired to provide that very thing. The question then became who will get Neal the puck in good spots? Well, Mike Ribeiro was signed for that reason and the fit has been a good one from training camp forward.
Ribeiro is a skilled playmaker. He sees the ice well and he has this wonderful ability to “hide his play.” He rarely reveals where he intends to move it until it’s too late for the other side to prevent. In my view, the recipe here has been one part Ribeiro making the most of the opportunity and one part that the coach wiped the slate clean and placed his trust in a player with demonstrated assets.
Here’s to another set of beneficiaries rising up down the road.