With 27 games of the 2020-21 regular season now in the books, we are starting to get a good feel for head coach Peter Laviolette and his new “system”, and for his overarching game management tendencies. The Laviolette brand of hockey is becoming clearer at this point in the season, even after the pure chaos the team plowed through at the beginning of the season.
As a result, we decided to round-up a few observations from the first half of the season with regards to Laviolette’s new system and his principles for managing the team. This is not intended to be an analytics or statistics-driven post, but rather an aggregation of game notes and observations related to Laviolette’s management of the team during the first half of the season. Here’s a quick snapshot of what we’ve learned after 27 games.
CONTEXT AND CAVEATS
First, we need to state that this is a very unique season. An abbreviated schedule, issues related to COVID-19, a short training camp and a compressed regular season schedule have surely affected how Laviolette and his staff are approaching games and the management of the team as a whole. As a result, it’s difficult to categorically classify some of these observations as standard operating procedures under Laviolette’s new system.
In addition, the first 20 games saw a significant number of player absences due to COVID-19, injuries, etc. That, coupled with an abbreviated training camp and reduced practice time during the early part of the season has made it a challenge for Laviolette to implement his new system. As a result, we will try to steer clear from a number of the early games and focus on the more recent games and relevant game events with regards to the identification of his management principles.
Player Accountability – Capitals’ General Manager Brian MacLellan said last offseason he was looking for a new coach that would hold players more accountable than previous administrations. He’s done just that. Laviolette has wasted very little time in yanking a player from the ice, reducing a player’s time on ice, etc., if a player makes a critical mistake in a game. The best example is the recent benching of Jakub Vrana, who was so ticked-off after the benching, when he returned to the game he wasted little time scoring the game-winning goal in overtime against the Devils. Players have also noted that they appreciate Laviolette’s honesty. He will tell them what he wants from them, and will let them know when he doesn’t get it.
Defensive Attack – Laviolette’s new system has modified key components of the team. This is best illustrated in the changing face of the Capitals defense. The defense struggled in early games, and they still have their occasional shortcomings as far as defensive schema, but it’s becoming fairly evident that his preferred style of defensive play is working well for the Capitals. True, the Capitals also added new pieces in Zdeno Chara and Justin Schultz, but the overall play of the blueline is on the rise. In addition, the new system has resulted in defensemen attacking in the zone, generating scoring chances in a much more efficient manner than in recent years.
New Team Roles – Kudos to Laviolette and his staff for throwing out much from the previous administrations, including previously defined roles on the team. The best example of this is Jakub Vrana is now a key component to the Capitals shootouts. Previous coaches seemed to be blind to this rather obvious assignment, but Laviolette saw the light and made the move, most recently benching Ovechkin for Vrana in a shootout. Vrána would convert to win the game.
Player And Line Roles – This category is closely tied to the previous category, but is more specifically related to giving players and lines clearly defined roles on the team, and seeing those roles work in game situations. The best example of this is the fourth line, checking line or whatever name you prefer to give to the Hagelin-Dowd-Hathaway line. The line has been the team’s most dominant line in many aspects so far this season. Not necessarily on the score sheet, but their ability to neutralize the opposing team’s top line, generate scoring chances, all while starting a majority of their shifts in the defensive zone,
Advanced Stats Believer – Laviolette said in early February that he liked the way his team was playing at the time, compared to how they played the previous month, even though the team took home at least one point in every game in January. In the midst of a four-game losing streak at the beginning of February, Laviolette said he liked what he was seeing “in the numbers”, and the advanced stats backed him up, clearly showing a team improving in many categories. Laviolette has mentioned “the numbers” in numerous post-practice and post-game media sessions and is clearly utilizing them to develop his strategic approach to games.
MAYBE NOT SO GOOD
Depth Player Rotation – Laviolette has been extremely reluctant to work-in depth players, taxi-squad players or potential callups into occasional games to keep them fresh and ready to play. In his defense, he may be thinking, with a shortened season, there is no time for “conditioning” taxi squad players, or giving depth players an occasional game. However, one could argue that players in Hershey might be more “game-ready” (conditioned) than players on the taxi squad, as Hershey is now playing games, while the Capitals taxi squad is holding very few full-team workouts. The best example of this is the use of Vitek Vanecek in the first part of the season, while Ilya Samsonov was out, and his reluctance to give an occasional start to any other netminders.
Conservative Closings – With a lead in the third, Laviolette has made it clear he prefers a defensive approach. In a tie game late, or leading by one, he will play to secure the one point. He recently stated his first priority is preserving the one point. This is “the great debate”. Should a team prevent a late rally from an opposing team by pulling back into a defensive shell to secure the point, or should they mash the gas pedal and try to grab or extend a lead and potentially grab two points in regulation? It will be interesting to see how this plays out if the team continues to yield leads in the third periods of games.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
Lines Du Jour – Laviolette started the season with new line combinations seemingly each and every day. To his credit, he needed to learn what he had, and that is certainly a plausible tack. However, there are occasions where he has gone to the whip (changed the lines) a bit early, whether in between games or during a game. This category also bears watching.
Player Response – For now it appears that the entire team has bought-in and accepted Laviolette’s new system and coaching style, but one has to wonder should the in-game benchings continue, if Laviolette might lose a player or two as the season progresses. We all saw how disgruntled Jakub Vrana was after his most recent benching. Will he continue to respond the way he did against the Devils? Will Evgeny Kuznetsov respond after additional in-game benchings? These guys are stars and don’t like being benched in front of a national audience. That’s a fine line to traverse and will also need to be watched.
Regardless of format, Laviolette has the Capitals battling for top spot in the East Division, so it’s difficult to be too critical of any elements of his system at this point. However, the team is still yielding too many goals and late-game leads, which needs to stop down the stretch.
We will add to, modify and update this set of notes as games proceed and Laviolette’s system becomes better defined.
By Jon Sorensen