The season in review for a head coach is tough to quantify - so as has become the tradition, we break down the 2021-22 campaign for bench boss Peter Laviolette in roundtable style. Feel free to weigh in on his debut in the comments.
Q1: What do you think was Laviolette’s toughest challenge to overcome, and how well do you think he did in the face of that challenge?
Luke: The Capitals were decimated by injuries and illness last season. It meant a lot of young kids coming in and playing lots of games. Laviolette (among like all the coaches) don’t like playing kids as much as they can. So for the Caps to be so short handed and Laviolette coaching a lot of kids he did well to keep the Caps above water. Actually more than above water considering the 100 point finish. Now if we can just convince him to trust kids way more often.
Peerless: Coaxing consistency out of his goaltenders. He’s not the goalie coach, but as they say, “the buck stops with him.” How well did he do? Well, this was new for him. In his past stops he dealt primarily with veteran goalies – Chris Osgood and Garth Snow in New York, Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes in his first year in Carolina, Brian Boucher and Ray Emery in Philadelphia, Pekka Rinne in Nashville. He did ride rookie Cam Ward to a Stanley Cup in Carolina, but Martin Gerber appeared in 60 regular season games in that year (Gerber’s career high in games). Coming into this season with a pair of goalies with a combined 82 games of regular season experience and four postseason games might have imposed different requirements in managing their time, dealing with slumps, or keeping them on an even keel. I think he did fairly well…”fairly.”
J.P.: With the injuries that Luke noted and the inconsistency in goal that Peerless mentioned, Lavi’s biggest challenge was trying to do what he wanted to do with the players he had. The goalies needed more help than you’d have hoped for, which means his defense maybe can’t be quite as aggressive in moving the puck up ice, but even when they could, there was a lot of inexperience up front for a lot of the season, so the puck would be coming back quicker than you’d like. In some ways it compacted the ice (rather than stretching it), making the Caps look and play slow by design, possibly intentionally and necessarily. I thought he did a pretty good job of overcoming those challenges, actually - the team posted 100 points and the goalies put up decent numbers… in aggregate; there’s only so much a coach can do there.
RP: No coach can overcome their goaltending, but really that’s not where they have their biggest impact. Lavi’s biggest coaching challenge was getting a country club core to play his blue collar game. The team got 100 points and frankly should have beaten the Panthers in the playoffs, so it’s hard to say he really failed. But, we have to qualify that (single) playoff series with a “should have,” so clearly job not done well enough. Too many nights the Dowd libex was the best line, and while that says a lot beyond just the coach, it’s no way to win in the NHL. Given the opportunities they had to both improve their playoff seeding and to advance to the second round, it’s very frustrating to see the way they left points and wins on the table.
Bryan: Other than the netminding, which was the big honkin’ elephant in the room the entire season, I think Laviolette struggled to pull the levers a coach needed to pull when it was clear that a shift in approach was needed midway through the year. Much of this was a function of roster construction (a not so insignificant portion of which stemmed from the injuries stated aboved) and a role structure that fairly set in stone. Simply put, their strength (everyone had a fairly narrow lane to stay in) was also a weakness: there simply wasn’t much room for improvisation or flexibility to make changes when it was clearly needed that something needed to be done differently to get more out of the team than they needed when struggling most.
Greg: Everyone is right here, it has to be the injuries and COVID-related absences. Granted, every coach in the NHL had to deal with that last part, but it seemed that Laviolette did a particularly strong job at the start of the year integrating rookies in the lineup. Although that largely stopped given that the roster started getting healthier, I almost wonder if the stability hurt the Caps at times, particularly as their veterans again received tons of ice time and (again) saw a diminished performance.
Q2: A lot has been made about Laviolette’s usage - or lack thereof - of some of the younger kids on the roster and in the organization. What do you think were Laviolette’s best, worst, and bravest roster decisions?
Luke: Whelp, I wrote my answer to the first question before I read this one. His bravest roster decision by far was having Martin Fehervary play top pair minutes basically all season. It was shocking he did that for two reasons. First, just letting a rookie play those big minutes in general, and secondly, it was shocking Laviolette kept playing Martin when he came back from COVID and was playing poorly. Lavi usually looks for a reason to pull a kid from the lineup but no matter how much Fehervary struggled after COVID, he just kept playing him. His worst roster decision was continuously not giving Connor McMichael the minutes he deserved. McMichael put up strong underlying numbers whenever he was on the ice and deserved more ice time and opportunity. Hopefully Lavi changes his tune this upcoming season. He did well with Aleksei Protas’ time on ice. Protas shows a lot of promise, especially defensively, hope to see more of him this upcoming season.
Peerless: I think Laviolette gets a bit of a bad rap on this issue, at least this season. I think his inclination is to lean on veterans and make rookies earn their keep with some tough love (see: “McMichael, Connor”), but 11 skaters combined for 273 man-games, a result that might have been dictated by injury issues. Five of the 11 dressed for 20 or more games, and it might have been six but for an injury to Joe Snively (12 games), whose season was cut short with 27 games left to play. The 273 man-games was the most since the Caps got 283 man-games out of rookie skaters in 2017-2018. The 11 skaters matched the 11 they dressed in 2013-2014. The last time they dressed more rookie skaters in a season was in 2003-2004, when in ripping out the walls of the team down to the studs, they dressed 14. As for best, worst, bravest….best: pairing Martin Fehervary with John Carlson. If the kid is going to be a cornerstone, see what he can do on the top pair. He lagged some at the end, but it was a good rookie season. Worst: Not seeing Justin Schultz playing himself out of the lineup. Schultz was 2-8-10, minus-16 in his last 30 games. He’d become a defensive liability, was on ice for only 15 goals at even strength over that span, didn’t play much of a physical game (which is not part of his repertoire anyway), and didn’t draw a single penalty. I wish Matt Irwin could have had more games (he had 17). Bravest: Leaning on rookies as much as he did, even if it was injuries that played a role in that decision.
J.P.: Yeah, it’s hard for me to be in the “he won’t play the kids!” camps when he gave Fehervary so much ice as a rookie. At the same time, McMichael’s usage was often… curious. Best: pairing Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. Worst: not giving Fehervary a break and/or a look at a different role in the second half. Bravest: starting Ilya Samsonov in a must-win game. [extreme narrator voice: He did not, in fact, win.]
Greg: I’m with J.P. here, I found Fehervary’s usage a bit baffling at the end of the year, particularly as he increasingly looked overmatched and Trevor van Riemsdyk looked like a plausible option. So I’ll go with sticking with Fehervary instead of trying TvR on the top pair as Laviolette’s worst move. I’d say his best move is the Orlov-Jensen pair, as giving Jensen some time with the Caps best possession defender seemed to reinvigorate his career and gave the Caps a credible shutdown pairing. His bravest move? Probably giving Protas some time on the top line, and he…didn’t do too badly? At minimum, I’d be curious to see what Protas can do with a more extended look in D.C. next year.
Bryan: I think if this year showed anything, it’s that the well isn’t nearly as dry as everyone seemed to think it was – there are a bunch of guys who seem like they could be legit NHLers down on the farm, of course if they were given the chance. I don’t entirely pin this on Laviolette though because so much of it is a function of salary cap and roster construction that there are just some logjams that would need to be broken through in order for some of the young guys to have an opportunity to play. Now, of course, if the guys who are in the starting lineup each night were playing better, then no one would really be clamoring to see some of the younger players get their shot, would they? All of that is to say that the best move he made this year was to really get a solid rotation of young players into the lineup for their first NHL action, it was really cool to see that the future is bright even after this iteration of the team moves on. It’s a bit of a chalk take to say McMichael’s usage was the worst decision, but I’ll stand by it.
RP: Best decision: Orlov/Jensen; worst decision: not knowing when to dial back on Marty; bravest decision: not caving to the pressure to keep forcing McM into the lineup when he wasn’t ready. Everyone wanted to see the promising first round pick in the lineup, especially with the injuries, but you could see he wasn’t physically ready for the full NHL grind.
Q3: Grade Laviolette’s overall performance in his second season as the Caps’ head coach.
Luke: I’d give Lavi a B+. Overall, he kept a team falling apart with injuries and a new lineup every night, and took them 100 points. He still has his issues with not trusting the kids enough, which could be his downfall with this older roster. This team desperately needs youth and speed, and it’s time he takes advantage of what he has, whether he likes it or not.
Peerless: He managed a team that was hit rather hard by injuries (no Capital dressed for as many as 80 games) and did rather well in avoiding prolonged slumps – the Caps had four losing streaks of three or more games, none more than four. Only twice all season did the Caps lose three straight in regulation, and one of those streaks was the last three games to end the regular season, when seeding was pretty much set. If there is a concern, it is that Laviolette-coached teams have won one playoff series out of five since he coached Nashville to the Cup final in 2017 (12-20 in games since Game 5 of the 2017 Cup final). I wrestled with a B/B-minus and tend to favor the former, but I’m on the fence.
J.P.: The Caps’ 100-point season is overshadowed by an incredibly top-heavy Eastern Conference and a first-round exit to a regular-season juggernaut. It shouldn’t be. The Caps had a terrific season, considering their injuries and goaltending concerns, and if not for the Caps, well, Caps-ing in the playoffs, might have pulled off a spectacular first-round upset. Peter Laviolette isn’t out there missing game-clinching empty nets or allowing soft goals or refusing to get pucks deep up three goals in a playoff game; Peter Laviolette is out there giving the Caps a game plan that’s good enough to win a lot of games, even the important ones. The execution is on the players. I’m giving Laviolette an A-minus.
Greg: A- seems a bit strong for me, but Laviolette did an impressive job this year. We kind of know his limitations as a coach: he’s not exactly great at incorporating new players into the roster, and he seems to be stubbornly attached to certain players as a coach (though I’d challenge people to find a coach who isn’t). That said, I’m willing to give Laviolette’s in-season performance an A- and go with a B- for his development of players…which averages out to around a B+.
Bryan: I’m with Greg on the B-range. It’s hard to knock a guy too hard for 100-point season in spite of all the injuries and churn and mid-year adversity they faced (some of which may have been a function of coaching, hard to say.) I was really frustrated with the specialty teams which I KNOW isn’t Laviolette’s specific responsibility, but the buck has to stop somewhere. I’m still not entirely convinced that he can get enough out of this team to get them back to where they were before he arrived, but I would also hope that he could put his veterans in a position where they don’t need a fire-breathing coach to light the fire to play to their fullest potential, and that they can find a way to be self-motivated to recapture their success from the 2018 season.
RP: Major injuries, no goaltending, and 100 points. There are plenty of things to critique, and we have, but ultimately you can’t lose sight of that achievement. I can’t go into the A range because I don’t think the team got as much as they could from their top end players–specifically when you look at how badly the PP failed them and the way the stars led the collapse to the Panthers–but hard for me to justify below a B+.