As the Nashville Predators advanced to the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, their head coach, Peter Laviolette, became just the fourth person in NHL history to carry three different teams to the Cup Final.
Peter Laviolette on what it means to take a third NHL team to a Stanley Cup final: "Probably means I got fired a lot."— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) May 23, 2017
Of course, here in Philadelphia, it’s easy to have mixed feelings about this. Laviolette’s last trip to the Final was here in 2010, and there are definitely some parallels.
The 2017 Predators were the last team to sneak into the postseason, and they’ve gone on a very fun and memorable run to the Cup Final. The 2010 Flyers snuck into the postseason on the final day of the regular season.
Stylistically, the teams are certainly a bit different. Nashville is reliant on a speedy defense in which their offense essentially runs through, plus the stellar goaltending of Pekka Rinne behind them. The 2010 Flyers were led by Chris Pronger on defense -- and while he’s a Hall of Famer, he would never be mistaken for “speedy” — with Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle rounding out the top four. They had a rotating circus of Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton in goal. These are differences.
The 2010 Flyers were a fun team, but obviously they did not win the Stanley Cup. The team lost in the conference semifinals in each of the following two seasons before missing the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
Three games into the 2013-14 season, Laviolette was fired by the Flyers. Given his current state atop the Western Conference -- and given that the Flyers are on their second coach since Lavi’s departure — there’s a lot of talk about whether or not firing him was ever the right call.
First, let’s look back to our perspective on Laviolette’s firing back when it happened in October 2013:
Nobody will argue that firing Peter Laviolette is a bad move for the Flyers. We can debate about how much it'll really help, but with a roster that's mostly locked in for the next 4 or 5 years, it's clear that problems can't be solved by getting rid of the entire team or even by getting rid of the general manager.
The Flyers have a lot of those problems, and through three games this season, they are the exact same problems we saw last season. The system doesn't seem to work, the personnel aren't really in place to make the system work, and the coach doesn't seem willing to adapt.
When the Flyers fired Laviolette, the team was really at a crossroads. The core of this team was — and still in some ways is — mostly set. It was clear that general manager Paul Holmgren had built a squad that did not fit Laviolette’s style of play. And that squad would not be easily dismantled, certainly not for one coach.
Lavi wants to play, for the most part, like his team in Nashville plays. Fast, up-tempo, with an active defense and a quick transition game. The night before Holmgren fired him, Laviolette went to work with this lineup against Carolina:
Hartnell - Giroux - Voracek
Schenn - Lecavalier - Simmonds
Talbot - Couturier - Read
Rosehill - Hall - Rinaldo
Timonen - Schenn
Coburn - Streit
Grossmann - Meszaros
I mean, that defense. Come on. Hell, forget just the defense — half this team could barely skate. It was not a team designed for a head coach like Peter Laviolette, who has never been a coach known for adapting to the players around him. That’s probably why he’s been fired by three different NHL teams.
As Bill Meltzer said in a fantastic piece on this very subject today:
Laviolette's shelf life as Flyers coach -- not as a fine NHL coach, but with the group he had at the time in Philly -- had passed its expiration date. In reality, though, if the coach's leash was that short after the lockout season that a rough training camp and an 0-3 start were enough to bring about his dismissal, the breakup would have been healthier for all parties if it happened in the summer instead of October.
That brings us to the replacement for Laviolette: Craig Berube.
Firing somebody — be it in coaching or really any other profession — does not happen in a vacuum. Unless the situation is completely untenable, the replacement for the person you’re firing has to factor into the decision, and it’s clear that the Flyers long planned to give Berube the gig. From a 2013 BSH story:
Paul Holmgren knew he had Berube in the organization, and he's widely regarded as an up-and-coming coach in the NHL. He was reportedly second in line for the Washington Capitals head coaching job a year ago -- it ultimately went to Adam Oates -- and his name was thrown around in coaching discussions all offseason as well.
For that reason, it's not shocking that he's been appointed the full-time head coach. No interim tag here.
"Craig is one of the smartest hockey guys I've ever been around," Homer said. "He's learned the game the last nine years, has been a head coach with the Phantoms. He demands respect. He's a no BS kind of guy."
With the full benefit of hindsight, we know that the Berube hire was a mistake.
They made the playoffs in his first season -- winning 42 of the 79 games after Laviolette was fired -- but it was clear that Berube wasn’t the coach that would take this team through their rebuild under new GM Ron Hextall, who took that job in the 2014 offseason. The team that Holmgren built and Hextall inherited was not very good, but in his second season as coach, Berube routinely made them worse through poor tactical and lineup decisions -- as nearly our entire writing staff agreed here in this April 2015 piece. Here was Charlie’s take on the dichotomy between Berube’s first and second seasons as Flyers head coach:
With Peter Laviolette either unable or unwilling to adjust his system to account for the team's weak defense, Berube was thrown into a mess of a situation. On the fly, he implemented a new conservative style centered around the forwards providing constant support to the defense, both in terms of defensive zone exits and aggressive backchecking on rushes. That and an increased emphasis on fitness and conditioning saw the Flyers rebound to make the playoffs and give the Rangers a run for their money in the first round.
So is Berube the adaptable, sharp hockey mind from [2013-14], or the "results-over-process" failed talent evaluator from [2014-15]? Most likely, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and Ron Hextall needs to decide if that is enough.
I think you can certainly make an argument that, as we sit here today, Peter Laviolette may be a coach who would have had success here with Hextall’s youth movement in full swing. He may be better suited for it than Dave Hakstol; the jury is out on that.
Letting Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere loose in Laviolette’s system sounds borderline pornographic -- I can’t even comprehend it with the additions of Travis Konecny, Nico Hischier/Nolan Patrick, Philippe Myers, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, et al. Teaching those players that system over a several year period and having them flourish as NHL players within it could have been exactly what finally kept Laviolette safe in a long-term NHL coaching gig.
But in October 2013, we didn’t know what this team would look like in May 2017. We didn’t know that Hextall would take over as GM just months later, pulling the team into several year process of building through the draft. We didn’t know that Ghost would be Ghost. Sanheim, Lindblom, Provorov, Konecny, Rubtsov and Myers weren’t even in the organization then, and the 2017 NHL draft lottery had obviously not taken place.
The Flyers were never going to throw away the 2013-14 season, or the 2014-15 season, or the 2015-16 season. Berube was the guy they went with in hopes of not throwing those years away. In hindsight, maybe that was the wrong call? That’s an entirely different question for another day.
But keeping Laviolette as coach of a team that he was not suited to coach would have been a mistake, too. Regardless of how things have played out over the last three-and-a-half years, the Flyers didn’t make the wrong decision in 2013 by firing Laviolette -- even if he’d make a strong head coaching candidate for them in 2017.