Washington Capitals rookie bench boss Peter Laviollete had to hit the ice running when Capitals training camp opened in January. He had just 10 days to implement his new system, get to know the players and coaches, understand their strengths and weaknesses and conjur up forward lines and defensive pairs before the season would begin. Oh yeah, and get it all done during a global pandemic. That’s a pretty tall order.
To Laviolette’s credit, and to the players, the team hit their stride quickly and had a fairly successful regular season. The team seemed primed for a postseason run with about two weeks remaining in the season when the air began to leak out of Laviolette’s inaugural balloon. Injuries, suspensions, off-ice issues and the pandemic would hit all at once, ultimately leading to a disappointing lowering of the curtain on the 2020-21 season.
With his first season now in the rear view mirror, we can begin to assess how things went for the Capitals under Laviolette this season. The following is more about his tendencies and observations on management style than a breakdown of team stats.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear last offseason that he would be looking for a new head coach that would hold capitals players more accountable. That was certainly achieved under Laviolette. In addition, most of the players seemed to be pleased with Laviolette’s management style, saying he was clear about what was expected, and he would let them know if expectations weren’t being met.
It wouldn’t take long to find out who Brian MacLellan was possibly referencing last offseason when he mentioned the need for more accountability. Jakub Vrana, Ilya Samsonov and Evgeny Kuznetsov struggled to comply under the new system. That shouldn’t be a ding on Laviolette’s record. He was directed to get the team in line. Some folks may never fall in line. However, and more importantly, it’s how you deal with the folks who struggle with accountability that’s the telling story.
You can argue with the results, (Vrana being shipped to Detroit, Kuznetsov never really falling in line, and a lost season for Samsonov) but it is what is. Time will tell if last season was a step in the positive direction, or missteps for the long term health of the team. We will find out in the next season or two.
MANAGEMENT OF DEPTH PLAYERS
Laviolette’s philosophy with regards to the use of depth players was fairly evident after 56 regular-season and five playoff games played. Laviolette avoided cycling in depth players on a semi-regular basis in order to rest veterans and keep players fresh. He was hyper-focused on winning each and every game and playing the best players available each and every night.
There is credibility to this philosophy, particularly in an abbreviated regular season. 56 games was to be more of a sprint to the playoffs than a normal 82-game trudge to the finish line. Every game had slightly greater importance and a new system needed to be learned and executed by the primary players. However, the strategy begins to take on water when there is a need for a depth player in a critical spot…like the playoffs for example, or when players begin to rot on the vine.
The main reason Craig Anderson was not considered a candidate for a start in the postseason (before the injury to Vitek Vanecek) was the lack of games played during the regular season. But why so few games for Anderson?
Anderson had four appearances all season. He did very well in the two games he started, stopping 55 of 59 shots faced for a .932 save percentage. Unfortunately he would be underutilized during the regular season, and as a result, had too few games to his ledger for coaches to be comfortable. But there were plenty of opportunities to get him work.
Ilya Samsonov would miss a decent chunk of games at the beginning of the season due to a bout with COVID. Samsonov’s last start was on January 17 before he was added to the league’s COVID-related absences list on January 20. He would miss 17 games before returning on February 28 against the Devils.
Of those 17 games missed, Vanecek started 16 of those games, with Craig Anderson starting just one game on February 21 and he came in for relief on February 7. If Anderson was given just five-to-six of those starts, he may have been in a better position for the postseason.
The story was similar on the backend. Laviolette played just eight defensemen the entire season. Defensive depth players like Jonas Siegenthaler were left whistling on the bench in the rare games they were awarded. Siegenthaler would play just 28 seconds against the Flyers on March 11th. It’s difficult to understand why a depth player would receive so little time in a game in mid-March. It was really no suprise that Siegenthaler wanted out and was eventually traded to New Jersey.
With the oldest team in the league, it would seem that occasional rest for the core players might have been a good plan. But again, to Laviolette’s defense, the season was shortened, the division race was wire-to-wire, with the title decided on the final day of the season. The importance of winning the division can be debated as well, but in the end, it was pedal to the metal for Laviolette and the Capitals during the regular season.
Another concern with depth players was the use of the taxi squad players. Many players and prospects received a callup only to sit on the taxi squad and see no game action at all. For several Capitals prospects and Hershey Bears players, it was essentially a lost season. Maybe a more frequent cycling of taxi squad players would have allowed each player to get games in Hershey every week or so. But again, the whole nature of a taxi squad was somewhat unique to this season.
PLAYING WITH A LEAD
The Capitals struggled with third periods and third period leads for a good portion of the season. Whether that was due to age, game strategy or something else entirely remains to be determined. Laviolette would often state that they were playing to protect the lead. He made it clear that was his strategy. However, it was evident that Laviolette’s strategy with a late lead may have had an impact on how games ultimately finished.
Once a lead was achieved in the second or third periods, Laviolette would typically fall into a defensive shell and bench players or entire lines that were not that strong, defensively, regardless of their offensive skills and capabilities. Often times the lead was squandered.
This strategy is not unique to Laviolette, or to sports, as many teams in all sports deploy similar “prevent defense” philosophies with a late lead. This is more of an understanding of Laviolette’s game philosophy, and again, it is what it is. The debate about how to play with a late lead is ongoing. Do you continue to attack in hopes of expanding the lead, or do you fall into a defensive shell in hopes of preventing any more goals? Laviolette will play to protect the lead.
DEALING WITH ADVERSITY
It was a abnormal season. It’s true that all teams had to deal with the strange circumstances, and Laviolette doesn’t get a pass because of it. However, the abnormalities due make it more of a challenge to accurately assess Laviolette’s strategies, and how his strategies would be deployed under more typical conditions.
Laviolette and the Capitals handled the unique situation as best they could, and did really well. There seemed to be a lot of “noise” surrounding the team for a majority of the season, but Laviolette and the Capitals plowed through it and had a pretty successful regular season campaign.
ADJUSTMENTS ON THE FLY
Blaine Forsyth is responsible for the effectiveness of the Capitals power play, but the results ultimately land on Laviolette’s desk. To their defense, the Capitals power play finished third in the league during the regular season at 24.8%.
However, it seemed pretty clear that adjustments to the power play were desperately needed in the series against the Bruins, as the power play struggled. Following Game 3 both Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom stated that they felt changes were needed.
Wilson on power play.”I think we’ll probably switch some things up. We haven’t really talked about it yet, today. We’ll digest it. We’ll look at some video we’ll see if we can make some adjustments. It’s playoff hockey. They’re blocking shots, making it tough. We gotta do better” pic.twitter.com/7PfCs1bhi6
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) May 22, 2021
Nicklas Backstrom would add that he thought the Bruins were reading the Capitals power play fairly well.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) May 22, 2021
If players are saying it publicly, changes are probably necessary. In fact, it really should never get to that point. Adjustments are likely needed well before that point.
An accurate evaluation of Laviolette after this unique season is probably too difficult to ascertain. In many cases he deserves a pass just because of the strange circumstances. However, his core philosophies and game strategies probably won’t change, and those are worthy of assessment.
Year two will give us a more accurate understanding of Laviolette and his management principles. A full training camp with a majority of the players understanding the Laviolette system heading into camp will no doubt benefit the team.
By Jon Sorensen