The phrase heard throughout the Predators organization is, “The road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee.” It’s usually said in reference to players in the team’s development fold, but it also has merit when it comes to the Preds coaching staff, at least when it comes to assistant coach Lane Lambert.
This preview of Lambert marks part two in our series on the Predators coaching regime; here is part one on goaltending coach Mitch Korn.
Lane Lambert is one of two members of the Predators coaching staff to have NHL-playing experience (Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn did not play at the NHL level). Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2nd round in 1983, Lambert was known as a defensively-responsible center that also chipped in timely goals and the occasional fight. But despite his early success with the Wings, the Saskatchewan native spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between the NHL and the minor leagues.
While his professional playing career left him quite short of a hall of fame bid, Lambert did learn from several top-notch coaches and gained insight into various teams’ systems while playing for five American Hockey League (AHL) and two NHL teams over an 18-year career. The techniques and lessons picked up during his playing days have also allowed Lambert to transition seamlessly into a coaching career after hanging up the skates in 2001.
Beginning his third season with Nashville this fall, Lambert transitioned from a head coach position with the Predators’ AHL affiliate the Milwaukee Admirals in 2011. The Preds assistant coach put up solid numbers with the “Baby Preds” from 2007-11, winning 178 games (6th most in the AHL over that span) and giving up 821 goals (the second fewest in the league).
Lambert’s first season with Nashville proved to be a highly successful one for him and the team. In 2011-12, the Predators finished with 104 points (48-26-8), possessed the No. 1 power play and ranked 10th in penalty-killing percentage. As the man responsible for Nashville’s special teams, Lambert received a lot of praise for what he was able to do with the Predators in his first season as an NHL coach.
His second season behind the Preds bench was a much different story.
The 2012-13 lockout-shortened season not only ended with a terrible record for the Predators, it also produced dismal special teams numbers (despite Lambert’s great hair). Seventeenth on the power play and 29th on the penalty kill were more than just sources of embarrassment for Lambert. The special teams shortcomings eventually led to a demotion of his responsibilities as Trotz announced mid-season he would take over management of Nashville’s special teams.
A triumphant first season—but the second—not so much.
It’s nearly impossible to argue the Predators near inability to score with the man advantage last season was a fluke. The Preds just haven’t had a top ten power play that often over their 14 seasons. Over the last 10 years, Nashville boasted a top 10 power play only twice and from 2008-11 they were in the bottom third of the league (20th or below). So the first season Lambert oversaw the Preds power play that finished No. 1 was likely not an indication of excellent-offensive coaching abilities, but instead a rare combination of a strong Shea Weber and Ryan Suter pairing and a larger than normal share of offensively-talented Predators forwards (top six forwards Alex Radulov, Andrei Kostitsyn, Martin Erat and No. 2 defenseman Ryan Suter are no longer with the team).
In other words, Lambert inherited an ideal situation in 2011-12 that will likely not be re-created any time in the near future. Calling Lambert some kind of offensive genius at coach is just not accurate. It is probably best if he does not regain management of the power play. Instead, new assistant coach Phil Housley (one of the best American NHL players ever) should takes the reigns on this part of the team.
Last year’s fall from grace on the penalty kill can be partially blamed on injuries and an under-talented Preds roster, so keeping Lambert over the PK and expecting it to rebound seems realistic. Four consecutive years of the second-lowest goals against in the AHL speaks to Lambert’s natural skill at drawing strong defensive play out of his players. This, combined with Nashville’s addition of several excellent defensive forwards means Lambert is highly likely to bring the Predators penalty kill back up to a top 10 ranking this coming season.
Lane Lambert has several similarities to Barry Trotz in his coaching abilities and strengths, which has its pros and cons. Both men are able to get the most out of their players when they focus on playing a tight, defense-first strategy that uses balanced lines and relies on timely scoring.
However, when either Trotz or Lambert step outside their comfort zones, you find them attempting to run over-simplified power plays and offensive zone plays that just don’t work. For now, the Preds can continue to rely on the strong defensive teams produced by Lambert and Trotz, supplemented with Housley’s ability to coach offense (primarily out of defensemen though).
But in the long term, if Trotz is no longer the head coach of the Predators, it is probably best for Nashville if Lambert moves along too.