In announcing Peter Laviolette as his new head coach, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan used an unusual phrase, saying they were fortunate to “have him available at a time of need for our organization.”
One often hears buzzy managerial language in situations like this — “taking us to the next level” and the like — but “at a time of need for our organization” isn’t usually part of that lexicon. It does, however, capture this moment for the Capitals: an aging veteran team, two years removed from their first Stanley Cup and watching their window slowly close, needing an experienced coach with a track record to hold them accountable and demand consistency.
Essentially, they needed Peter Laviolette. The Capitals signed him to a three-year deal on Tuesday, as he emerged from a pool of candidates that included former Vegas coach Gerard Gallant and former Toronto coach Mike Babcock.
Did they make the right hire? Let’s analyze it.
Accountability, first and foremost. When head coach Todd Reirden was fired after two seasons — following the Capitals’ first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders and coach Barry Trotz, whom Reirden replaced in Washington in 2018-19 — MacLellan said one factor in the decision was Reirden’s inability to properly motivate the Capitals’ roster.
“We have an experienced group. We need someone to come in and push some buttons on some good players,” he said, citing a lack of “structure” in the Toronto bubble. “We’re going to need someone that can come in and establish that as a big part of our identity.”
Laviolette’s reputation is that of a disciplinarian. It’s simplistic to separate the NHL coaching world in taskmasters and “players’ guys,” but it could be said that he has elements of both — as opposed to someone like Babcock, who is more antagonistic.
“Peter has a track record of establishing a culture, and it’s one of his priorities. And part of that culture is getting guys to play the right way and holding them accountable to play the right way. I think it’s a big priority when you talk to him, so I have confidence, because he’s done it in the past,” said MacLellan. “We assume the players [know] that’s a big strength of his moving forward and it’s a big reason why we hired him.”
With accountability comes attention to detail, which was another failing of the Reirden Capitals, according to their general manager.
“Probably Christmas this year, you could see the style of play started to deteriorate. Our team game wasn’t as good as it had been. It was going in the wrong direction. Our compete level was in and out, so we had some inconsistencies, and I think it just built from there,” MacLellan said when Reirden was let go, adding that the unfocused play continued into the postseason.
Laviolette sees that level of execution as part of his team’s overall identity. “I feel like there’s always an opportunity going in as a coach to not only build an identity on the ice, on how you want your team to play and an expectation of what it’s going to look like on a nightly basis, but also how you’re going to build your team internally and how hard they fight for each other, how much they care about each other. For me, those are things that you can go in and you can work on a daily basis both in the room and on the ice,” he said.
There are some general trends in Laviolette’s career. In 13 full seasons as a head coach, his teams have been in the top 10 in goals scored seven times. That’ll likely continue in Washington, as the Capitals have been in the top 10 in six straight seasons. Defensively, the Predators were one of the better teams in the NHL during his time in Nashville, tying with Los Angeles for the fewest amount of goals against in his five full seasons there.
The biggest difference between Reirden and Laviolette is that experience. Not just in games coached or in playoff experience — Laviolette has made 11 postseason appearances and is the fourth coach in NHL history to lead three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final — but in being an outsider to the Capitals organization. MacLellan has said it was mistake to try to extend the Barry Trotz system and legacy with an assistant coach, saying “I guess in hindsight you could say we could’ve brought in a more experienced guy.” Laviolette brings that clean break, and a clean slate.
“To be honest, no two teams have been the same. I think when you take over a team you come in with an open mind and a blank slate on the team and the players and the individual personnel. And then from there it’s about building your identity on the ice, setting a standard of what you expect on a daily basis and working together throughout the course of the year to try and prepare yourself for the playoffs,” said Laviolette.
What we’re unsure about
One person Laviolette hasn’t spoken to yet is Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals’ captain and the engine that drives them.
He’s one of several players over 30 who comprise the leadership group for this team, along with center Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson and winger T.J. Oshie. Ovechkin is also part of a core within a core: Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Ilya Samsonov and Ilya Kovalchuk (should he return) are a group of Russian players who help to define the culture of that team.
As Laviolette said, no two teams are alike. The Carolina Hurricanes team he took over in 2004 had a few strong veterans in the room like Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour and Glen Wesley; the latter two were still there when the Canes won the Cup in Laviolette’s second season. He took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Cup Final in his first season there in 2009-10, replacing John Stevens after 25 games. That was a room with one veteran elephant in the room — Chris Pronger — and a younger group that needed accountability. He needed three seasons to get the Predators to the Cup Final in 2017, the year after captain Shea Weber was traded to Montreal for P.K. Subban.
Laviolette has been hired to hold the Capitals accountable and get the most of its veteran core, and he knows that’s the challenge.
“The communication between the players and certainly the leadership group I think is extremely important because whatever it is that a coach is trying to project it has to be received by the players,” he said. “You have a veteran group that’s been through it before. I’m sure they want to get back. That’s just the nature of the beast of competitive athletes and they want to get back. So the fact that they’re a veteran group, I’m hoping that we’re going to work together and that I can push in any way that I can so we can back to a level that can get us deep into the playoffs.”
From the personnel standpoint, it’ll be interesting to see if assistant coach Kevin McCarthy comes along with Laviolette. They’ve worked together for 15 years. In Nashville, McCarthy was tasked with running the power play. Since 2014, the Capitals have had the second-best power play in the NHL (22.2% conversion rate); in that same span, Laviolette’s power play was 28th, at 17.8%, which does include 28 games of John Hynes as head coach.
“He’s a pretty special guy,” said Laviolette of McCarthy. “At this point, I’m not sure what the staff is going to look like.”
Can they win with Laviolette?
It’s incredible to think that Ovechkin has had only two head coaches with previous head-coaching experience in 16 NHL seasons. The last one also came from Nashville, where former Capitals GM David Poile hired them. Perhaps it’s coincidental that Ovechkin & Co. made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time and won the chalice with their only experienced coach behind the bench in Trotz. Most likely, it’s not.
Laviolette is, in many ways, an ideal coach for this group. They would have rejected Babcock, his baggage and his mind games. While Gallant is a solid head coach, this isn’t the right group for his approach. They needed someone who commands respect, can demand accountability and has a track record for getting results rather quickly, given the age of the Capitals’ star players. A three-year contract gives you a sense of that timetable.
With two straight first-round exits since winning the Cup, there is talk that the Capitals’ window is shuttering. Laviolette doesn’t buy it.
“To me, I see a team that’s had success recently, regular-season success, some postseason success, and for me that’s the great opportunity. I don’t necessarily look at it and say, ‘Well, it’s got to happen this year or it’ll never happen,'” he said. “If you’re asking me, ‘What do I see?’ I don’t look at it that way and say, ‘Well, it’s next year or nothing.’ I look at it and say, ‘This is just a great opportunity and I can’t wait to get started.'”
MacLellan has some work to do in order for the Capitals to contend for the Cup again. They only have four defensemen signed. With Braden Holtby as an unrestricted free agent, they need to figure out the goaltending. Oh, and then there’s the little matter of Ovechkin’s free agency after the 2020-21 season.
But he can tackle those tasks knowing that he’s got a coach with the sixth-best career points percentage (.588) for those with over 1,000 regular-season games behind the bench, and a coach who rights many of the wrongs from MacLellan’s previous hire.