The season in review for a head coach is tough to quantify - so as has become the tradition, we break down the 2020-21 campaign for first-year bench boss Peter Laviolette in roundtable style. Feel free to weigh in on his debut in the comments.
Q1: Laviolette came into a new team facing a ton of challenges, from a shortened training camp and season to strange scheduling to injuries and players in COVID protocol. What do you think was his toughest challenge to overcome, and how well do you think he did in the face of that challenge?
J.P.: I’d say it was the shortened training camp and lack of any real preseason. It’s hard enough starting with a team full of new players (some of whom were new to each other), but without the normal prep time, some of that inevitable learning curve gets pushed deeper into the regular season, and you saw that over the first dozen or so games before the team seemed to really start to gel in early/mid-February. All in all, Lavi did a pretty good job of trying to glue the wings on the airplane as it was barreling down the runway for takeoff.
Luke: I can’t add much more to what JP said. When looking at everything Lavi had to deal with at the start of this season he got the team going and was playing some great hockey going into the playoffs. Just a shame most of the top players got hurt at the worst time.
Alex: I agree with JP and Luke, but I’ll also expand a little on what Luke mentioned in terms of injuries. Laviolette inherited a roster with some pretty stellar components, but he didn’t get a lot of time to work with the top guys all together between injuries, COVID, and the shortened season. Lavi did a great job of managing the team’s depth and pushing that “next man up” mentality that was so important to the Caps this season, but it’s a bit of a shame that he (and the players) did not get an extended amount of time with the top guys all on the ice at once. Hopefully that changes next season, because Lavi has the skills to really manage the Washington roster well.
Becca: Agree with all of the above and will add that the injuries were hugely impactful during the playoffs - which is really when I was hoping to see Laviolette go to the next level with this team. Unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about that (and as the injuries stacked up it showed, with the team getting basically swept out of the first round). That said, I do think he handled the other challenges remarkably well and don’t think he’s gotten the credit he deserves for what he accomplished. All of those chips stacked against him and he got his team to within a point of a division title in the toughest division in the NHL? Yeah, that’ll do.
Kevin: I think the point about Laviolette not getting much time with the team before the train left the station is the most important one here, but like Alex said, on top of that, he was infrequently able to ice the team’s ideal lineup for the better part of the season, oh, and by the way, before the season even started he lost the guy who in hindsight almost certainly would have won the playoff net for team, just after the season started, he lost the next-man up in goal for an extended period, and was suddenly riding a netminder who wasn’t even a part of the organization’s near-term plans. Despite this, and everything said above, the team finished tied for the most points in the NHL’s deepest division. The premature playoff exit hurt, as usual, but I think the totality of evidence suggests that Lavi did a nice job.
Q2: What do you think was Laviolette’s greatest success this season, and where do you think he could improve?
J.P.: Does “somehow not murdering Evgeny Kuznetsov” count? If not, I’d say his greatest success was in rebuilding the Caps’ defensive-zone exits from something that was absolutely putrid under Todd Reirden and Reid Cashman to something serviceable if not better. As for improvements, he and his staff have to fix the power play - it’s predictable and abysmal and that’s inexcusable given the talent on it.
Luke: Getting the team going and totally fixing the Capitals play in the defensive zone was a huge turnover. They finished the season top-10 in all the defensive categories, which is amazing considering he was so handicapped at the start of the season. As for where he can improve, I’d like to see him trust the team’s younger players more. It was an absolute crime Daniel Sprong was sat to start the playoffs. Martin Fehervary, Alexander Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Garrett Pilon, and maybe some other kids will probably make at least a handful of NHL starts next season, and Laviolette needs to play to their strengths instead of sheltering them.
Also, start Sprong in the top-six you coward.
Alex: It’s the defense for me, folks! The Capitals were...not always painful to watch in their own zone this season, and they owe a lot of that to Laviolette. I also think he was far better equipped to both motivate and focus the team than Todd Reirden ever was. In terms of improvement, I agree with Luke in that he needs to trust the youth more. In my opinion, he did a great job of that in regards to the goalie situation but not so much with the rest of the roster. Lavi has a bit of a reputation for trusting young guys to help them develop, so it was interesting to see that not be as much of a focus this season. However, that might — and hopefully will — change with a full 82-game season.
Becca: Again, I agree with a lot of what was said above - I’m just an agreeable person - and I think the fact that this team that was such an unstructured mess just a season ago became one of the better defensive teams (without sacrificing too much in terms of offense) in such a short time is quite impressive. And because I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, I loved how he came in to DC and didn’t just go with the family-type atmosphere but enhanced it and seemed to be focused on making this a cohesive, close-knit bunch from the start. That was evident so many times this season - they were a family. /cheeseball notions
Kevin: By most shots-against metrics, the Caps were nearly a top-ten shot suppression team. If you look at a metric that goes one click deeper, such as scoring-chances against, they were a top-five suppression team. Under Reirden they were middle of the pack at best, and “at best” usually didn’t qualify. I agree that this stems primarily from the play of the blueliners, who were making quicker and better decisions moving the puck out of the defensive zone, and seemed emboldened to carry the mail out and through the zone if the opportunity presented itself...looking at you, Nick Jensen. As for improvements needed, I’ll go the penalties route. The team was once again in the top third of the League when it came to penalties taken, and had a negative powerplay opportunity differential. It would be nice to see this sort of thing going in the other direction after a long trend to the downside.
Q3: Grade Laviolette’s overall performance in his first season as the Caps’ head coach.
J.P.: I’ll give Lavi a B-minus. There’s some reason for optimism going forward, but Lavi needs to get the offense humming a bit better, including on the power play, or there’s no reason not to expect more of the same.
Luke: Like BMac I’ll give Lavi a B+. Overall he did some great things with the team. As the season went on the team got better and better. It would have been really interesting to see how the playoffs would have gone if he had a healthy team. He could certainly make improvement, like all coaches, but his first year with the Caps is a success in my books. Let’s see what he does with a full 82 game season.
Alex: I’m going to give him a solid B for 2021. Perfectly serviceable, nothing glaringly wrong, nothing truly spectacular. All of that is, of course, subject to change come next season; fingers crossed it’s for the better.
Becca: I’m going with a B... but an incomplete B, if such a thing exists. While he did so much in the face of so many challenges, it’s so hard to get a decent read on, and adequately assess, what he can (and hopefully will) bring to this team. I want to see him get to coach a full 82-game slate with a real schedule and then actually get as close to a full deck to work with in the postseason as he can.
Kevin: If the team had fared better in the playoffs, when a coach really earns their bread, he’d have been comfortably in the A range for me. Unfortunately, getting smoked in five by Bruce Cassidy doesn’t do much for your grades (even if you didn’t coach Ilya Samsonov to boner-up that puck behind the net in double OT, so I’ll give him a band-aid B and expect improvement in 2022.