In many organizations, coaching a team into the playoffs for five straight seasons would earn you an extension, not a pink slip.
But the Cup-or-bust expectations in Nashville set a standard that ultimately helped fuel the disappointment for the Predators this season and cost Peter Laviolette his job.
Nobody said this league was fair. Not that Laviolette is complaining. He’s not bitter. He gets it. But it’s still disappointing nonetheless after all the success he’s had in five-plus seasons in Nashville, including multiple playoff series wins and a trip to the Stanley Cup final.
“I don’t know if getting fired will ever surprise me because you’re in a profession where you’re expected to win, you’re expected to help your team be successful,” Laviolette told The Athletic over the phone on Tuesday evening. “And as a coach, I realize that. So for me, when your team is winning and doing great and you’re in first place in your division or if you’re a top seed in your conference, you probably don’t worry about those things. Anything is possible when you’re not in those positions. Anything is possible at any time. That’s the nature of the beast and the nature of the job.’’
With the Predators four points out of a playoff spot at the midway point of the season, following a first-round exit to a good Dallas Stars team last spring, the perception was that this team was regressing.
I say perception because, well, who knows anymore in this league. With so little separating each team, gauging success (outside making the playoffs and going on a run) is a difficult exercise.
When the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning were swept in the opening round last season, it was yet another reminder that the top 20 or so teams in this league are awfully close.
But when expectations are high in certain markets, it puts a bull’s eye on people in the organization, most often the coach.
Imagine a season in which Laviolette, Peter DeBoer and Mike Babcock all get fired; three serial winners all shown the door.
Is this the price of parity?
“Those guys are both really good coaches,” Laviolette said. “I have a lot of respect for the job that they do and they’ve experienced a lot of success. I can’t necessarily speak for them and where they were at and what went on, but I do know coming into Nashville, the expectations were a lot different. When we first got here, we hadn’t made the playoffs for a few years. And the expectation was to get into the playoffs. I think once you experience success with a team then those expectations change. It’s not that they’re harder to manage, not necessarily for me internally, but I do think those expectations become loud from an external standpoint.’’
A trip to the Cup final three years ago was followed by a second-round exit in a thrilling, seven-game series with Winnipeg, a matchup that featured the first- and second-place teams in the overall NHL standings. After a first-round loss to Dallas last year, the Predators have struggled during the first half of this season.
Expectations weighed heavily and weren’t being met. The coach paid the price.
“There’s been a lot of success but with that success, I do think the expectations can change for your organization and they do become a little bit harder for the entire organization to deal with and to handle,’’ Laviolette said.
“I don’t think there are any easy rounds, I don’t think there are any easy opponents,” Laviolette added. “The teams are good, the players are good, the coaching is good. The league is doing awesome.’’
Make no mistake, once Laviolette is afforded his next opportunity, he will thrive. This guy wins wherever he goes. The idea that somehow his message or his systems have gotten stale is not reality. He’s found a way to turn around teams at every stop in his career. He will do it again.
And Laviolette is ready for the next challenge.
“When the times comes, if there is a vacancy down the road, if my family and I feel it’s the fit we are looking for, for sure I want to coach again,” Laviolette said. “I want to go back in, I want to build something. I want to try to take something that’s not working and turn it in the right direction and to find success and that challenge in the playoffs, and be successful and motivate players.
“For sure it’s something, and I think it’s down the road, but I’m definitely still on board.’’
And so with that, he’s ready to turn the page on a wonderful chapter in his life and career. Working for GM David Poile was a great experience.
“David is such an incredible human being,” Laviolette said. “I’m really thankful to David for the opportunity that he gave me to work with him. My relationship with him was really good, we talked almost every day, more than once a day, and it was a partnership and I really appreciate that part of it. You know what kind of man he is, he wants to do anything he can for anybody on a personal level and for his team for the organization to be successful. I’ve feel very fortunate to have worked for David and the ownership group here. They were fantastic.’’
Laviolette said he will look back fondly at his five-plus years with the Predators.
“When I look back on my time in Nashville, I’m going to have such great memories of not only David and the ownership but also the players, staff and coaches that I was able to work with on a daily basis,” Laviolette said. “Our fans are just incredible. I mean, the building is incredible. Everybody experienced the playoff runs and the energy that came to Nashville. It was awesome, I will remember that for the rest of my life.’’
(Top photo: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)