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2023-24 Rink Wrap: Spencer Carbery

Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

The season in review for a head coach is tough to quantify – so as has become the tradition, we break down the 2023-24 campaign for bench boss Spencer Carbery in roundtable style. Feel free to weigh in on his debut in the comments!

Q1: What were your expectations for Coach Carbery when he was first hired? Did Carbery miss, meet, or exceed those expectations?

Luke: Honestly, I don’t know what I expected exactly from Carbery, except maybe a coach who would incorporate the youth more. I think I kept my expectations quite low for a brand new head coach taking on an older team, but he definitely exceeded them. The locker room seemed really tight and gelled well. In games, I felt like he made the adjustments he needed to, as well. I don’t think he was perfect, but it was his first year and it couldn’t have been easy dealing with the Nicklas Backstrom injury and Evgeny Kuznetsov craziness. The fact he got that team into the playoffs is mighty impressive. 

J.P.: I expected a “newer” brand of hockey than what we’d seen under Laviolette (and Reirden and Trotz, really), but there’s only so much a coach can change given the roster he’s handed, so I knew it would take time and the best we could realistically hope for was glimpses of what Carbery’s vision for the future is, and I think he delivered on that. The one area where he failed to meet my expectations was on the power play, given his track record with Toronto and how far the Caps had fallen in that facet of the game, but, overall, I’m optimistic about the future with Carbery behind the bench, and that’s all you can really hope for. 

Andrew: I’m not sure what I was expecting to begin the season. Certainly had no idea what to think of the hire. I knew the kind of person I didn’t want hired to be the next coach of the Washington Capitals: another veteran coach who won oh-so-long ago who has a similar coaching philosophy as seemingly every veteran coach does, which is basically lean on the vets and staple the kids to the bench. The league is pretty small after all, with the same coaches getting hired in different locations. 

The more I learned more about Carbery, though, the more positive I was about the hire as someone who would mentor the kids, not just limit their ice time when they made a mistake. I think for the most part that’s what we saw this season. He had a lot of challenges to work with. Losing two of your starting centers, the best goal-scorer in a generation barely registering any offense for much of the year, and your number one goalie suddenly being unplayable were all challenges that I don’t think anyone had listed going into the season. But Carbery handled it well. He played the kids a lot – in part out of necessity and partly because, if you want them to learn, they have to play. Connor McMichael was a talking point going into the season. He played in all situations and even centered Alex Ovechkin for part of the year. Carbery made Anthony Mantha a tradeable asset. And as Luke said, Carbery made adjustments. For not knowing what to expect I like what I saw from his coaching. I agree with J.P. I’m optimistic about the future of the Caps’ bench boss. 

Rob: I also expected a more modern style and more of a player’s coach, based on his reviews coming in; I had no idea if any of that would translate to being a good head coach. The team didn’t have as much talent to work with as all the coaches before him since at least Hanlon had. Making the playoffs with this roster is an achievement in itself but he did great work with the kids, somehow got more from Mantha than any coach in years, and kept the team positive through tons of adversity related to their cornerstone players. He definitely exceeded expectations. 

Q2: What do you think was the biggest obstacle facing Carbery when he was first hired, and how well did he manage it?

Luke: I believe at the time that Carbery was hired, the Caps were one of the oldest teams in the NHL. I imagine that couldn’t have been easy for a young guy like Carbery who just came from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ team full of young talent. I think he did well in gaining the veterans’ trust and got them to play the right way, showing the rest of the team how to play as well. The vets might not have been able to play with the pace Carbery was asking for but they tried and didn’t give up on him. That shows promise for the future as the team gets younger. 

J.P.: It rhymes with “Too many blue bets off.” But I think Luke nailed it – veteran buy-in for a(nother) rookie head coach isn’t always a given, and Carbery got it. And then there’s the (other) elephant in the room – the rapidly declining but record-hunting franchise player. That’s a tough one to work around, and Carbery handled that one well on the interpersonal level, but maybe a little less so tactically, as the Caps were massively outscored with Alex Ovechkin on the ice at five-on-five. He’ll need to mitigate that a bit better next year – no easy task, for sure.

Andrew: Agreed with everything said above. It was one of the oldest rosters in the league, but the team rallied behind their veteran players and their new coach. As the season went on I think the problem almost became the opposite, with the team needing to lean on the young players because of injuries and absences, while the veterans like Ovechkin and John Carlson lead the way. I think he handled it well for the most part. I agree about Ovechkin and his usage especially, early on, but I think Carbery did what he could. Ovechkin was playing with different centers all year. I don’t know if you can get Ovechkin to be a net positive while at five-on-five anymore, but getting him to as close as possible will be something both Ovechkin and the team will need, both for the sake of history and if they want to make the playoffs again next season. 

Rob: The team is old and getting older, and has always had questions about, um, adaptability. He managed Ovechkin and the age-related injuries as well as anyone could—there’s a fine line between relying too much on old players and relying on the Hershey Bears defense corps in the playoffs. He was able to bring the kids along far enough for them to be key pieces by the end of the season, and got help from Carolina in solving the team’s final problem. 

Q3: What was Carbery’s biggest strength and biggest weakness this season?

Luke: Like I said earlier, I think Carbery’s biggest strength was his ability to weave the vets and the younger players without stepping on anyone’s toes. Getting players of all ages to play on the same page and get along shows his prowess as a head coach. It’s hard to find a weakness, because so much of the team’s issues mainly came down to personnel. Would they have struggled as they did if they had more youth and skill? I doubt it. But if you want to knock on Cabery for something, it could be letting the power play stay the same for so long. It picked up some at the end of the season, but for the first four months or so, the power play stayed the same and was bad. He isn’t the power play coach but he is the head coach, so he probably should have stepped in sooner. 

J.P.: Carbery pushed the right buttons at the right times and led a resilient bunch that might get their asses handed to them one night, but bounce right back in a way that some previous Caps teams might not have. That’s coaching… and that’s how you make the playoffs with a monumentally bad goal differential. As far as weaknesses go, the offense (including the power play) never quite got on track, which meant on most nights they were either getting a great game from Charlie Lindgren or getting blown out of the building. Part of that is a LOFT (Lack Of F***ing Talent) issue, of course, but the Caps have to find a way to generate more offense going forward.

Andrew: Carbery did a great job of getting the entire team on the same page. For a first-time head coach I think he was a steady voice the team could get behind. As for negatives, definitely the power play. As mentioned already for someone who was in charge of the Maple Leafs power play the Capitals power play was quite miserable. That’s how a team ends up with a negative 37 goal differential. I know we saw some movement of Ovechkin on the powerplay. And perhaps part of the reason he is able to stay out the full two minutes is because he doesn’t move too much. But Ovechkin scored plenty of power play goals before he had an office. I don’t think completely changing up the power play scheme is the answer, but it’s not the same team or the same players. I would like to see continued wrinkles, like the movement of Ovechkin. If it’s not working in the first 15 seconds try something else. Use the second power play unit more. Change who is on the power play. It did improve later in the season but then was a no-show in the playoffs. You can always go back to the 1-3-1 power play. 

J.P. mentioned that part of the problem is the lack of talent. That’s seen on the power play and in the offense overall. The team played shot suppression because they weren’t able to go down by more than a goal. And even that one-goal deficit seemed impossible some nights. One thing that I would really like to not see anymore is Ovechkin just standing in front of the damn net. I get he is a big body and he has the skill to tip and bat the puck into the net. But his bread and butter, meat and potatoes, where his scoring threat comes from is his shot. Either the snapshot through traffic, the wrist shot from the bendy stick, or his one timer. Perhaps at this point you just let Ovechkin do his own thing. Ovechkin isn’t the strength of the cycle game. I don’t like his chances in any board battle. But I want to see more movement from Ovechkin in the offensive zone. I think it would help his offense and the team’s offense overall. 

Rob: His energy and infectious attitude are his biggest strengths; inability to coach out some more offense, especially on the PP, the weakness. 

Q4: Grade Carbery’s overall performance in his first season as the Caps’ head coach.

Luke: Overall I give Carbery a gracious A-. I think for what he was given and it being his first season, I think Carbery did very well. I can only see him getting better with more experience and better, younger players surrounding him.

J.P.: It’s hard to point to an area in which Carbery’s Caps were particularly good. Their offense struggled, their defense was decent but bailed out by frequently outstanding goaltending, their special teams were middling at best… and yet they clawed their way to the playoffs with a roster that had no business whatsoever being there. I’ll go back to something I wrote back in April

“Consider that Carbery took a worse roster than Peter Laviolette had a season ago and earned 11 more points and a playoff berth. (What ever happened to Lavi, anyway?) With due respect to the players that are about to be listed, Beck Malenstyn was fifth among forwards in total ice time and their playoff-clinching three-game win streak featured Alex Alexeyev playing more than 21 minutes per night. Carbery lost the two most skilled centers in franchise history and made it to the playoffs with Dylan Strome, Connor McMichael and vibes. He trusted the process until regression finally arrived for Alex Ovechkin and the power play, but also adjusted tactics and mentality when it became clear that this team would need to be able to play and win low-scoring games.

“In projecting the Caps to fall short of 82 points and giving them a seven percent chance of making the playoffs prior to opening night (HockeyViz had them at 28%), The Athletic put it this way:”

“Between the Capitals’ weak center depth and aging core, the team just looks uninspiring both at forward and defense. So it’s hard to see how this is a playoff team, unless the coaching is that much of a difference-maker.”

Maybe it was.

Carbery finished 7th in voting for the Jack Adams Award and arguably should’ve finished even higher. It’s an A-minus for me – I’m not sure how many coaches, League-wide, could’ve done more with that squad.

Andrew: I like the A grade. A solid A for me because Carbery seems like a genuinely good dude. I think he did what he could with the roster he had. I especially like J.P.’s point about having a worse roster than Peter Laviolette and getting 11 more points. And to Luke’s point, I would also be surprised if we’ve seen the best out of Spencer Carbery. The team is still rebuilding or retooling on the fly to stay competitive while Ovechkin chases Wayne Gretzky and also look to the future. I think that is Carbery. He’s here to do a job now, but also will be part of the future. An unproven NHL head coach (we’ve seen how that has gone before) is a risk. But it was also a smart hire. I went from unsure what to expect with a new coach to optimistic about what he can do. 

Rob: Made the playoffs with a questionable and  depleted roster, and has already held his job for longer than half his peers. Gotta be an A. 

Talking Points