Statistically, Peter Laviolette is #2 in Carolina Hurricanes history as a head coach. He ranks second in seasons coached with five (including partials in 2003-04 and 2008-09) and second in all-time wins with 167. His all-time total rankings are largely a factor of the short lifetime of the franchise (18 years as of summer of 2015) and the relatively small number of coaches (only four).
But Peter Laviolette’s legacy in Hurricanes hockey history is not about longevity or statistical accomplishments. It is about one magical season that arose out of incredibly improbable origins. About halfway through the 2003-04 season, Peter Laviolette was brought in to replace Paul Maurice who had been the team’s only coach up to that point in time. The team had missed the playoffs in 2002-03 and was struggling mightily in 2003-04 when Laviolette came aboard. Finishing out the 2003-04 season Laviolette logged a respectable but not earth-shattering record of 20-22-10. That was followed by an entire season lost to the NHL lockout. When Laviolette and his Hurricanes’ team reconvened a full year later to prepare for the 2005-06 season, it looked very little like the team he left at the end of the 2003-04 season. New players totaled 10 and included Martin Gerber, Cam Ward, Cory Stillman, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney, Andrew Ladd, Mike Commodore, Frantisek Kaberle, Niklas Nordgren and Oleg Tverdovsky who were not with the team that finished the 2003-04 season.
In addition to the changes to the Canes roster, it became pretty clear that something else had changed – the game itself. In trying to increase scoring and entertainment value and recapture the fan base coming out of the lockout, the NHL made multiple changes. Three changes were most significant. First, the two-line pass rule that limited players moving the puck up the ice to passes across one of the three lines (defensive zone blue line, center red line, offensive zone blue line) was eliminated. The entire rink was open for passes including stretch passes from the defensive zone all the way to the offensive blue line. Second, the league made a conscious and legitimate effort to have the referees crack down on hooking, obstruction, interference and other illegal impeding of players. This had always been against the rules but previously let go. No longer could big, slow defenseman combat speed by simply hooking, holding or obstructing opposing players to slow them down. Those two things significantly changed how the game was played on the ice. The third thing was the salary cap. With a new limit on player salaries and some teams already over it before they even started trying to build their teams that summer and two years’ worth of free agents hitting the market, free agency that summer was utter chaos. Some teams were buying out players. Other teams were bidding for a decent batch of top-tier players who had become free agents with a whole year of no new contracts. Amidst the chaos, the Canes went bargain shopping. They signed not one but two veteran offensive players on the cheap (Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney) and an assortment of other players on the cheap. Between the summer right before the lockout and the summer of 2005, the Canes added a huge assortment of veterans virtually all for less than $2 million per year.
Though much had changed both inside and outside the Hurricanes organization, following from where things left off after the 2003-04 season, the Hurricanes were predictably and unanimously projected to finish somewhere in the bottom five in the entire league.
Then things really looked doubtful when the team practically blew a tire right out of the gate of the 2005-06 season. The team lost in Tampa to start the season but more significantly lost starting netminder Martin Gerber to injury. The backup was a rookie who had never even played an NHL game named Cam Ward. Ward won a home opener for the ages collecting his first start and win and stoning the trio of Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Ziggy Palffy in the shootout to do so. Over the next few weeks Ward played reasonably well and the team started to win. The winning was a nice surprise obviously, but more interesting than the what was the why and the how. The reason the Canes were winning was because they were just flat out better at this new NHL than the team they were playing against most nights. Cory Stillman almost instantly developed an uncanny knack for providing quick short outlets for his defensemen to get him the puck quickly from where he could make stretch passes to two big skating power forwards in Eric Staal and Erik Cole. Seemingly 80 percent of Stillman’s beautiful passes were illegal two-line passes in the old NHL. The result was a goal scoring surge by both Erik Cole and Eric Staal. And the quick and hard-skating Canes capitalized on the new enforcement of obstruction type penalties. Players like Justin Williams, Ray Whitney and Chad LaRose flew right around defenders who could no longer take a piece of their speed with their stick or a free hand. Put more simply, the Canes more than any other team in the league except possibly the Buffalo Sabres were built for the NHL. So that is why the Canes were winning.
The how was maybe even more surprising. Very early in the 2005-06 season, I think long before the national media or anyone outside Raleigh caught on, the Canes were playing with a swagger and confidence never before seen. In its rollercoaster ride leading up to the 2005-06 season the Canes did have some success and some runs of winning, but it always felt like it was from the role of the underdog. The 2005-06 team attacked people like they were very much the aggressor and the favorite. The team forechecked like mad. When they had the puck they attacked the defenders in front of them. And the team just had an air and confidence about them that suggested it was going to win every night. I still remember sort of feeling it even in October but not knowing what to make of it or whether to believe it. As a fan who was not privy to what was going on in the locker room or in the players heads, it took some time to fully believe that the reality matched the appearance and also that it was not temporary. And that confidence and swagger was incredibly fun.
For any team that wins the Stanley Cup, it takes multiple things falling into place. For the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes, the players themselves were obviously good. There was a bit of serendipity with the way the chips fell with free agency and the rule and game changes and the team’s situation fitting it like a glove. And sure there were some lucky breaks and bounces along the way. But there was also Peter Laviolette. He deserves significant credit for matching the team’s style, system, skill set and lines to the new game. Much of the league bumbled along for half of a season trying to figure out how to capitalize on the new rules while the Canes were mopping the ice with them. And his role in creating a confidence and swagger so quickly out of the ruins of the 2003-04 season was seemingly impossible. When I think of Coach Peter Laviolette and his team from 2005-06, the image that comes to mind is that of a great team that had the right balance of sheer confidence and the expectation that they will win every night but also the hunger to go get it. And that swagger. There just was a different air about that team almost throughout the season that was contagious. Even when the team was successful, I do not think we have seen anything like it before or after as Canes fans.
When you net it out, a professional sports season is about winning a championship. Sure there can be positives for less, but they are consolation prizes. In the seventeen season since the Carolina Hurricanes and NHL hockey parachuted down into North Carolina exactly 11 of the 30 teams in the NHL have won the Stanley Cup. The Carolina Hurricanes are one of those 11 teams that have successfully achieved the ultimate goal. Peter Laviolette deserves a huge amount of credit for his leadership and role in that accomplishment and because of that he sits among the greats of Hurricanes hockey history.