Laviolette returns under new circumstances

Staff writerDecember 26, 2009 

— Perhaps in honor of Peter Laviolette’s return to the RBC Center, the Carolina Hurricanes conjured the kind of rally they once memorably produced under Laviolette. Then, in acknowledgement of their lowly station in the NHL this season, they lost anyway.

There was a lot less on the line Saturday than during that magical Stanley Cup season, when so many late deficits vanished into vapor, but the three-goal, third-period comeback in the 4-3 shootout loss to Laviolette’s Philadelphia Flyers was certainly a welcome blast from the past during a season that has been a lot closer to 2002-03 than 2005-06.

It has been less than four years since the Hurricanes, under Laviolette, won the Cup. It has been a little more than a year since he was fired. The warm applause that greeted his introduction aside, both events seem far deeper in the past, perhaps for Laviolette most of all.

“There are really good memories for me from that,” Laviolette said Saturday. “But it has been a year and the page has turned and I’m part of a tremendous organization that wants to win.”

There is no question it was time for Laviolette to go when he was fired last December, an excellent NHL coach whose font of ideas had run dry. Paul Maurice did an outstanding job fusing Laviolette’s aggressive foundation with his own more conservative precepts, and that mélange got the Hurricanes all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.

Working with another coach’s template, Maurice made all the right tweaks. For whatever reason, the foundation of his own this fall hasn’t worked. Maybe what the Hurricanes need is someone to tweak Maurice’s template, and Laviolette would be the ideal candidate.

Alas, he was behind the opposition bench Saturday, although any chance of a Laviolette return a la Maurice II was scotched when Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos unleashed his verbal flamethrower on Laviolette’s reputation last January.

It’s a shame how it all worked out, although any hockey coach worth his whistle knows his first day on the job is merely one day closer to his last. By the time Laviolette was fired, with the team treading water after two seasons without a playoff appearance, it was difficult to see how Laviolette could turn things around.

Maurice’s new voice and renewed enthusiasm made the difference last season after the Hurricanes’ prolonged struggles wore Laviolette down to a very dull nub.

“When you get the opportunity to step away, you really get a chance to just refocus and come back with a passion in what you believe in and how you think things should be done,” Laviolette said.

Coaches are human, and in blind tunnels of despair and pressure, they lose perspective. Maurice is having the same issues this year Laviolette did last year. Brandon Sutter, the Hurricanes’ best player this season, had the headphones virtually yanked off his head just before a first-intermission television interview during Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens so he wouldn’t miss Maurice’s “motivational” speech.

When Laviolette was fired last season amid that very kind of desperation, the Hurricanes were 12-11-2. This year, the Hurricanes were 5-15-5 through 25 games. Since then, they’re 4-7-2 -- marginally better, but still not good enough.

His return to Raleigh behind him, Laviolette will get back to the business of trying to get the Flyers into the playoffs. The reunion with their ex-coach behind them, the last-place Hurricanes will get back to pursuing the No. 1 pick in the draft. It isn’t hard to see who has the better end of that deal.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8947

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