Predators hope staff changes can reinvigorate lineup

From the tone of their season-ending press conferences, the management team of the Nashville Predators made it clear that they were very unhappy with the way that the season had ended.

A team that had earned playoff berths in seven of the previous eight seasons landed with a thud, four spots from the cellar of the NHL standings.

Management let it be known that it would make hard decisions in order to get the franchise back on track. One of those decisions became public this week, as the Predators announced on Tuesday that associate coach Peter Horachek, who had been with the team about a month short of 10 years, would not return.

A few hours later, the Preds announced the addition of former long-time NHL defenseman Phil Housley, who ranks fourth all-time among defenseman in points, as his replacement. Housley was an assistant coach on the U.S. national team that won bronze recently at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships and a member of his team was Preds second-year forward Craig Smith, who flourished at the tournament after a terrible NHL season. In addition, Housley led the U.S. team to gold at the World Junior Championships last December.

“We thank Peter for his contributions to our organization during his time here,” general manager David Poile said in a statement. “He has been a dedicated coach who brought passion to his role each and every day. We wish Peter the very best in his future endeavors and made this difficult decision at this time to allow him to pursue other opportunities.”

Of Housley, Poile said in a statement: “Phil brings a unique skill set to our coaching staff. He was one of the most talented offensive defensemen to play in the NHL and he has worked extensively with young players during his coaching career. He will continue to focus his efforts on our young defensemen and assisting on the power play.”

That undoubtedly means two things.

First, it means that a major focus of Housley’s will be young defensemen Roman Josi, a second-year player who is coming off being named the MVP at the World Championships, along with Ryan Ellis, a former first-round pick who regressed in his second pro season.

The second will be to revive the Preds’ power play. Under Horachek, it was tops in the league in 2011-12. However, last season it fell all the way to 17th. The Preds’ scoring woes were a major reason why they failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Preds were tied for last in the league in scoring at 2.27 goals per game.

Under circumstances like that, the Predators were forced to make hard decisions. In many ways, the Predators are run like a family business. Poile has been there since the franchise entered the league 15 years ago. So has coach Barry Trotz and numerous other team employees. The organization takes care of its own, a prime example being that of hockey operations advisor Brent Peterson, who also has been with the team since the start. When Peterson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and could no longer work as associate coach, the Predators created his current role for him in 2011.

All of which underscores what a difficult decision, as Poile noted, that it must have been for the Predators to part ways with Horachek.

Horachek was with the organization for all of the playoff appearances in its history, including the 2011 and ’12 postseasons in which the Predators advanced to the second round. Horachek’s bio on the team’s media guide read that he “played a significant role in Nashville’s development of homegrown players which accounted for a franchise record 22 of 34 players to appear in at least one game in 2011-12.”

Good coaches suddenly do not wake up one day and become bad coaches. As recently as 2011, Horachek interviewed with the Dallas Stars for their vacant head coaching job.

Nonetheless, in this case change ought to be positive. The down side of the Predators’ having so much organizational consistency, if there is one, is that ideas or the approach can grow stale. So-called “groupthink” can represent a danger. Once in a while, an infusion of new ideas and fresh blood can work as a positive to reinvigorate a structure that has proven itself over the years to work successfully.

The Predators had too many talented players take a dramatic step backwards in 2012-13. Smith, Sergei Kostitsyn and Ellis, demoted to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League in midseason, are among them.

In the case of Housley’s hiring, Ellis stands out. A junior hockey star, Ellis totaled two goals and four assists and a minus-2 rating in 32 games for the Preds before finishing the season in Milwaukee. The year before as a rookie, also in 32 games, he had three goals, eight assists and a plus-5 rating. At 5-foot-10, Ellis struggled noticeably on the defensive side of the puck last season and Trotz said that his role was to be an offensive-playmaker, which he did not do.

His size should not be an issue, as skating has become the most important asset for NHL defensemen, as Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom, who has played in an All-Star Game at 5-10, has proved. Enstrom has 219 points in 402 career games. While he competed in a different era when players were not as big as they are today, Housley stands 5-10.

“A coach with history as a defenseman who was offensively gifted and excelled on the power play is something we have never had on our coaching staff,” Trotz said in a statement. “His insight and viewpoint will bring a fresh perspective to our team.”

This is not to lay the blame for all of the failures on Horachek. That would make him an overly convenient scapegoat. There is plenty of blame to go around, including at the feet of the players.

But the sense is that new blood – Housley’s in particular — will do the Preds some good.