Washington Capitals’ head coach Peter Laviolette’s window to bring another Stanley Cup to D.C. is closing fast. Yes, he has only been at the helm of the team for two seasons, but he was brought in for a reason and that was to guide the veteran roster to another franchise championship. Adversely, that will ultimately be his downfall if he doesn’t adapt.
Laviolette Needs to Be Mr. Right, Not Mr. Right Now
Laviolette, 57, is undeniably a Hall-of-fame head coach. Shortly after the 2021-22 season began, he became the winningest American-born head coach in NHL history. He currently has 693 wins, which is 10th all-time, and 3rd among active coaches, trailing only Barry Trotz and Lindy Ruff.
His career at the helm of an NHL franchise started in 2001 when he was hired as the head coach of the New York Islanders. The team had missed the postseason seven years straight before Laviolette took over. He guided them to the playoffs during both seasons he was there before moving on to Carolina in 2003-04.
After a rebuilding year, he had the Hurricanes in the playoffs. In 2006, he and Carolina won the Stanley Cup. However, disappointment followed as the team missed the next two postseasons, and he was fired in 2008.
Laviolette then became the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009. That season, the team reached the Stanley Cup Final as a seven-seed, which included an improbable comeback from being down 3-0 in the Conference Final series against the Boston Bruins. After being ousted in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals the next two years, and then failing to make the playoffs a season after, Laviolette was fired three games into 2013-14.
His next stop was Nashville where he replaced Trotz, who went on to coach the Capitals after his tenure with the Predators came to end. Laviolette led Nashville to the playoffs in four of the five seasons as head coach, including a trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He was fired midway through the 2019-20 season.
On Sep. 15, 2020, he was hired as head coach of the Capitals. Though he has impressively led now five teams to the playoffs, and three of them to the Stanley Cup Final, taking over in Washington was different. He inherited a perennial contender … and postseason underachiever.
Short Leash in Washington
Like with any good franchise, expectations are high in Washington, especially when urgency is an added variable. Assuming the team will make the postseason this year unless a drastic collapse happens, the Capitals have made the playoffs 14 of the last 15 years, including a Stanley Cup title that is still kind of fresh from 2018.
To coincide with the arrival of generational talent Alex Ovechkin, Washington has had seven different head coaches, three of which since 2018. That may not stand out to some, but what it shows is that management is dedicated to winning another championship now, and just reaching the playoffs isn’t good enough. Heck, even winning the Stanley Cup wasn’t good enough to offer Trotz a better package.
Todd Reidern (2019-2020) was a disaster. He was Mr. Right because he was already labeled heir apparent and knew the team well and was an easy transition to continue the momentum after a title … so was the reasoning. Reirden went 5-10 in the playoffs and was let go after his second postseason early exit.
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It’s not about winning in Washington; it’s about winning it all. Management was tired of playoff disappointment under Bruce Boudreau (2008-2012). Dale Hunter and Adam Oates were bad coaching experiments, though beloved players in Washington. They found a winner in Trotz but messed that up. After Reirden, they now have Laviolette… who is 1-4 in the playoffs as the Capitals’ coach.
The questions to ponder are how short is Laviolette’s leash and how willing is he to adapt. The answers are “very” and “not very” at the moment.
Laviolette Needs to Adapt
General manager Brian Maclellan and Laviolette aren’t focusing on the future, but that’s what they need to be doing. The veterans are aging and missing more and more time, but the emphasis of past deadline moves and coaching strategy seems to be more about furthering legacies that don’t really need any more bolstering.
Ovechkin, 36, is averaging 22:03 of ice time per game — the third-highest of his career. Yes, he’s playing at a Hart-level right now, but everything is a trade-off, and the power-play woes can be considered a direct connection to Ovechkin being worn. The team, who was always a dangerous unit with a man advantage, currently ranks 29th in power-play percentage (14.6). That’s not working and they won’t win the Stanley Cup unless that changes.
Considering Laviolette’s preference for physical play, it adds to the overuse of veterans. The answer to the team’s problems is already on the roster, but it’s up to Laviolette to utilize the luxury that’s been gifted to him this season.
Use the Rookies More
Washington has used 13 rookies in 2021-22, and due to their surprise development, which came fast and out of necessity, they can help offset the overuse of veterans and secure the future of the franchise in the process.
The rookies weren’t expected to contribute as much as they have; it’s a surprise there was even talent in the system after the picks Maclellan has given away over the years, especially considering it’s really only worked out once. Yet, the Hershey Bears, Washington’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, is first in the AHL Atlantic Division, second in the Eastern Conference, with 40 points. They also rank 7th in the AHL in power-play percentage (19.3) as a fun note.
Players like Brett Leason, Connor McMichael, and Aliaksei Protas have provided depth in their roles, showing improvement each time they take the ice. If Martin Fehervary is taken out of the equation, the other 11 skaters (goalie Zach Fucale is the other rookie unaccounted for) average just 10:31 of ice time in a collective 120 appearances. All but one rookie has recorded at least one point this season, Leason, McMichael, and Protas have combined for 23. If they’re trusted that much to fill the roster, those minutes should be higher.
They no longer are on the team out of necessity; they skate with the intention to consistently contribute. They need more chances to do exactly that. This isn’t a call for them to take over the reins, but it’s a call to let them develop more while taking pressure off the veteran stars. To be fair, Laviolette has adjusted accordingly with the roster, but it’s time to take it one step further.
The good thing about implementing this strategy now is that it’s only January.
The Capitals have eight restricted/unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer, and five of them (Justin Schultz, Matt Irwin, Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek, Daniel Sprong, Michal Kempny) will likely be allowed to test the market. In the summer of 2023, nine more possibly hit free agency.
Two years. They have two years with the bulk of this current roster, and Laviolette has two years as well — maybe. If he’s not going to foster in the youth now, then he’s not the right guy for the future of the franchise. With all of his success, he still is 1-2 in Stanley Cup Finals, has just a .594 overall regular-season win percentage, which is 11th for active coaches, and that percentage drops to .514 in career playoff games and has been fired from three out of his other four franchises.
The rookies have proven they can play, and more play will gain that experience they will need so the team doesn’t fall into a rebuild. More relevant to this season, it will take pressure off the veterans, keeping them fresher for a Stanley Cup run.
You can’t just keep acquiring veterans at the trade deadline (the one exception this year will be a goalie). To paraphrase “Right Now,” bubblegum punk act SR-71’s 2000 hit, “I know [Laviolette] may not be [Mr.] Right, [he’ll] do right now.”
It’s vital that Laviolette puts his stubbornness aside and substitutes it with trust in the team’s youth. His window is shutting faster than this generation of Capitals’ last chance at another Cup. He needs it, the rookies need it, the franchise needs it.
To further the above paraphrase, possibly foreshadowing the future, Laviolette is “slowing driving [Caps’ fans] insane, but now that’s over.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, but it can be argued that Capitals’ fans have earned the right to be impatient.
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Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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