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Sudden Death: A Look at Peter Laviolette’s Overtime Options

The loss in Seattle had many questioning the coach’s personnel choices - so what is Laviolette’s system in OT, and how is it working so far?

Washington Capitals v Seattle Kraken Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

Late Thursday night, the Caps, after giving themselves a two-goal lead, slowly let Seattle put an increasing amount of pressure on until the Kraken had tied the game late in regulation. They then proceeded to put the Caps away after just seven seconds of overtime.

The manner in which the team once again let a lead slip through their fingers (hey, at least they got a point this time) drew plenty of ire from Caps fans, but more anger was directed at the coaching decision of who was on the ice during this critical seven-second stretch.

Seriously, do a Twitter search of “Eller OT” and... woof. People are mad, y’all.

So why was Lars Eller out there? Laviolette didn’t speak to his decisions after the game - or much else, in what was a very short, noticeably pissed off postgame media session for the coach - so we can only guess. It could have been his faceoff success on the evening, where Eller was dominant (although so were his fellow centers, with one notable exception); of course, as we know and as we saw, faceoffs only really matter until they matter, so basing an overtime decision on just that isn’t great. But beyond his prowess in the dot on Thursday, Eller also had one of the better games overall among Caps’ forwards, finishing the night with the best five-on-five CF% (and the only one above 40%) and the top relCF% on a team that got pretty well cratered by the opposition when it comes to possession.

Still, one of the knocks on Eller these days is his lack of footspeed and perhaps a tendency for a bad turnover - both valid complaints, in general. But in this particular instance, would someone else on the ice in that moment have been able to stop Beniers? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly didn’t help that John Carlson (after being interfered with, let’s be honest) was hauled to the ground and in Eller’s path as he tried to chase down Beniers.

Eller trips over the fallen Carlson, rendering both of them incapable of doing much to stop what unfolds, and the rest... well, take a look again, if you dare:

It’s not a pretty sequence but it’s also one of those “everything that can go wrong is going wrong” sequences that, unfortunately, made all of the Caps on the ice look foolish and ultimately cost them a standings point.

This play aside, though, Thursday night’s fiasco led some to call into question the choices being made when it comes to overtime this season. So let’s look at the big picture: is Peter Laviolette making the right call when it comes to who he uses in overtime?

First of all, it’s worth noting that it is a very small sample size to work with. The Caps have gone to overtime five times, lost two outright in the extra frame, gone to the shootout twice (both losses) and earned a win once thanks to Alex Ovechkin being Alex Ovechkin. Not great, but not the worst, either. They have an xGF% of around 42% - again, not great but not the worst (and in fact better than, among others, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Boston).

What about previous seasons? The Caps don’t have the most sparkling record in overtime since Laviolette took over, going 17-21 in overtime/shootout games since 2020-21, and 9-14 in those that ended in overtime... but they’ve also got the fourth-highest xGF% three-on-three over that span,

So let’s go back to this season and see what’s going on with the personnel choices being made.

Through the team’s five OT games this season, 15 different players have had at least one overtime shift. Among those 15 players, there have been five different configurations of trios to kick off the overtime (and Thursday was the first time Eller was in one of those starting trios). T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson are regulars in that group, but they’ve been joined by a rotation that’s included Dmitry Orlov, Martin Fehervary, Marcus Johansson, Conor Sheary, and of course, Eller.

Out of that ongoing rotation, there’s not even really a pattern of who has been on the ice for the two losses. Thursday it was obviously Eller and Carlson, along with Oshie. In their first loss to Vegas, it was Ovechkin, Dylan Strome, and Erik Gustafsson... aka the same trio that was on the ice for their lone OT win against the Flyers.

At any rate, that’s a lot of options, which tells us that Laviolette has tried a number of different things to find the combo that worked, and that maybe he just hasn’t quite found it yet this season. Looking at the guys who are left, the ones who haven’t seen the ice in overtime so far, none of them seem to be better options than the players who are in the rotation. Not sure anyone would choose to put Garnet Hathaway or Matt Irwin out there, for all the good they’ve done in different situations this year.

Maybe the issue isn’t that Laviolette is making the wrong decisions. Maybe it’s that, with the roster as currently constructed, the team just doesn’t have the players needed to make the right ones. The losses of guys like Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Dmitry Orlov are all big when it comes to who the team has relied on in the past, and who has had success.

Even with those guys, there’s a chance this team just doesn’t have the speed and youth needed to hold up to the rigors of three-on-three. Ultimately, though, the decisions that Laviolette is making when overtime comes around are probably the best ones he can given the situation. He hasn’t done anything truly bad (for example, going to two defensemen in overtime, which..... god no), nor does he seem to have strict rules for who can and can’t take the ice that are causing any sort of major, glaring issue with the team’s outcomes.

Overtime has always been something of a coin flip, especially with the three-on-three format, and what happened in Seattle the other night - while awful to watch - may have very little to do with any specific decision made by Laviolette, and much more to do with sheer bad luck.