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Peter Laviolette, the Capitals, and Discipline

Does Peter Laviolette have what it takes to break an ugly trend in Washington?

2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Nashville Predators v Dallas Stars Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Perhaps you heard that a new bench boss has arrived in the Nation’s Capital. Peter Laviolette’s next tour of duty in Washington comes on the heels of the departure of Todd Reirden, whose tenure will be remembered primarily as an underachieving two-year epilogue to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run.

Last year, we analyzed the on-ice tatters that Todd Reirden put the Capitals in and, predictably, the team sought the hard-edged but abstract characteristics in their next coach that were evidently absent in Reirden - ideas like accountability, and discipline, and structure.

But don’t take it from me. These are GM Brian MacLellan’s words from the press release announcing Laviolette’s hiring.

“Peter is a successful NHL head coach who has won a Stanley Cup and brings a wealth of experience to our team,” said MacLellan. “We feel he is a great communicator who will motivate our players to play with passion, structure and discipline, while helping our young players reach their potential. In addition, he is a high-character individual who is highly respected for his coaching pedigree, all of which make him the ideal person to lead our team to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

So what do these traits translate into, exactly? Well, that’s anybody’s guess, but one thing we can do is take a look at an aspect of the game that is frequently associated with these concepts: penalties.

The following plot takes a look at where the Caps fall against the rest of the League in both power play opportunities per game and times short handed per game, going back to 2007. Caps’ data is in red:

With power play opportunities represented on the x-axis and times shorthanded represented on the y-axis, an ideal season with strong discipline against taking penalties and, conversely, a proven ability to draw penalties, would register in the bottom right of each season’s plot... where none of the Caps’ last 13 seasons have ended up in this regard. And that really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, the last two seasons under Reirden have seen the Caps finish with the 2nd and 5th most times shorthanded (with no team being shorthanded more times over that entire span). In the two seasons preceding those, Barry Trotz fared marginally better, being shorthanded the 5th most in 2016-2017, and the 9th most the following season.

There’s a clear theme here: the Capitals take too many penalties. They’ve been doing it for awhile, and under multiple coaching staffs. Alright, so where have Laviolette’s teams indexed by the same measures? They are added to plot and colored blue:

A quick glance shows us that Laviolette’s teams have historically been a near sure bet to generate more power play opportunities than Caps’ teams (the blue dot sits to the right of the red dot), and has also generally been shorthanded fewer times in a season (the blue dot sits beneath the red dot), although this is more pronounced in recent years.

To get an even closer look, we’ll segment this measure out into component parts, and for fun, we’ll color code by Caps coach as well, in comparison to Laviolette. First up, times shorthanded:

Man, look how many times the Caps went shorthanded in Bruce Boudreau’s first full season as coach. Pretty wild.

On the above plot there’s a pretty clear inflection point in 2014-15, when the black bars, which represent Lavoilette’s team, drop off, and generally sit lower than the respective Caps’ bar. As a reminder, 2014-15 was Laviolette’s first year coaching the Nashville Predators after his stretch with the Philadelphia Flyers, so the above could reasonably simply be interpreted as the Predators being a more disciplined team than both the Flyers and the Caps.

Let’s take a look at power play opportunities generated:

Here we see a clear trend: in thirteen out of the last thirteen seasons, whatever team Peter Laviolette has been coaching has received more power play opportunities than the Washington Capitals. This doesn’t directly have to do with the notions of discipline and accountability with which we prompted this analysis, but it’s noteworthy because the import of a lack of discipline, over the course of season, is largely going to be informed by how it interacts with the number of calls that are coming back the other way. Put another way, how many penalties is the team drawing for each penalty it takes?

Here’s a look at just that:

This is pretty simple: positive values mean the team is a man-to-the-good more frequently than they’re shorthanded, and negative values mean the opposite. Most of Lavi’s bars (black) are positive, and most of the Caps bars (colorful), are negative. In fact, the last time the Caps had a positive power play to penalty kill opportunity ratio was under Adam Oates, and the Oates tenure was the only time that number was positive in the last thirteen years. Unreal. To the contrary, five of Laviolette’s last six teams have benefitted from more power plays than times shorthanded.

This is by no means a comprehensive idea around discipline and the impacts thereof in the NHL, but it is an area where the Caps have been demonstrably flawed for a long time, where Peter Laviolette has comparatively fared much better over a significant sample, and something we can keep our eye on in the early stages of the 2021 campaign.