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Peter Laviolette: Man With a Plan

The Caps’ head coach has been the unsung hero behind the team’s turnaround

Washington Capitals v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Over the last month or so, the Caps have rebounded from a mediocre opening to the season and propelled themselves back into playoff contention. Much has been made - and rightly so - of Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scoring, the stellar goaltending, and the all-around improvement in the team game, all of which have fueled the Caps’ turnaround.

Yet despite these improvements and the climb up the standings, it doesn’t quite feel like appropriate credit has been given to the mastermind behind all of it: Caps’ head coach Peter Laviolette.

Since taking over behind the Caps’ bench two and half years ago, Laviolette has faced a number of challenges; some were challenges shared by all teams (such as the pandemic and its related obstacles) and others specific to this Capitals’ team, most notably in the injury department.

This season in particular, the uphill climb faced by Laviolette and company was fairly daunting, particularly as they began the season knowing they’d be without a third of the team’s top-six forwards for the foreseeable future. The Caps stumbled out of the gate, looking lost and getting outplayed more often than not as they fell away from the rest of the Metro pack.

But then things began to change.

Last week, Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga talked about the underappreciated job being done by Laviolette, relaying a story of when the Caps seemed to right the ship:

Before the team played the next night in Edmonton against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, Laviolette assembled his leadership group. The message was plain.

“We said, ‘This is a long road from where we sit right now, and not many teams come out of it,’ ” Laviolette said this week. “ … ‘We cannot afford a December like October and November, and if we do, we might [not] be a playoff team.’

Since that conversation, the team has gone 13-2-2 and vaulted themselves back into a playoff position. Much of the credit does go to the players, who do seem to have committed themselves to playing better as a group.

But the team’s resurgence surely wasn’t as simple as just a chat with the leadership or even a determination by the players to just play better. The improvement was rooted in what was likely a calculated change in strategy by Laviolette and his coaching staff, which the team has since executed to perfection.

From ESPN:

The Capitals’ 11-1-1 roll through the end of calendar 2022 was fueled by a change in their system by coach Peter Laviolette. It was much less reliant on trying to outhit opponents and an aggressive forecheck, which put too much stress on their defense and goaltending, and more emphasis on controlling pace of play.

Now, it would be easy to look at a note like that and have your takeaway be to wonder why Laviolette didn’t make the change before then - but just as it is highly unlikely that a simple conversation was the catalyst for such a huge improvement, it’s also highly unlikely that the team changed their entire system and found success right away, all in one weekend.

That fateful first weekend in December is certainly when they began their climb up the standings, when the product on the ice began to result in points in the standings. Go back a month earlier, however, and there were positive trends in some of the team’s underlying numbers, even if it wasn’t showing up in the win column - a sign that Laviolette was already starting to make some tweaks to a system that simply wasn’t working anymore.

Through the season’s first ten games, the Caps ranked 22nd in five-on-five CF% (46.7%), 26th in xGF% (43.9), and 21st in HDCF% (47.1%) - despite the team’s goalies posting fifth-best even-strength save percentage of .936.

Fast-forward to the 20-game mark, right before Thanksgiving, and there were definite signs of improvement across the board, with shots and attempts on the upswing, five-on-five CF climbing up over 50% and xGF moving in that direction - all positive signs that would continue into December.

In fact, the problem at that point seemed to be puck luck, as their shooting percentage had dipped to below 8% while the goalies had a few stumbles, a combination that wasn’t earning them points in the standings. It certainly didn’t help that this marked a high point in shots given up, as the team went through something of an adjustment period - a reminder that progress isn’t linear.

via MoneyPuck

By the time December rolled around, though, the system change started to bear fruit. The focus on controlling the pace rather than just hitting everything that moves led to more offense (boosted, of course, by Alex Ovechkin’s torrid run toward 800+), and as the team’s attack changed, their defense improved. Charlie Lindgren, filling in for an injured Darcy Kuemper, was spectacular once put in a position to succeed, and Kuemper jumped right back in to be equally dazzling upon his return.

Again, it wasn’t a perfect upward trajectory. When the winning started, the Caps’ underlying stats actually started to dip back a little, as we noted back in mid-December, and better defense, goaltending, and puck luck masked a slight decline in the stats that can predict long-term change. Still, the team was improving, and by just before Christmas, it was showing up across the board.

As J.P. noted at the time:

Over the last ten games, they’re third in score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five Corsi-For percentage, and over the last 16 they have a 23.9 percent successful power play and the third-best penalty kill on the circuit. Put more simply, over the last ten games, they have an expected Goals-For share of a tick under 60 percent (for the second time this month, and a number that would put them atop the League if they maintained it for the full season):

via MoneyPuck

All of this took work, and buy-in by the players - and it took knowing what to change, and how, by Peter Laviolette.

What makes his accomplishments that much more impressive is the fact that he was able to enact this change, get his team to buy in and find eventual success while also experiencing a ridiculous run of injuries to some of the team’s key players. It seemed they would hardly get one player back before another went out, and a team that was already missing Wilson and Backstrom, would go on to lose newcomer (and Wilson replacement) Connor Brown for the season, and see T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Martin Fehervary and Dmitry Orlov all miss significant time.

And yet the team stayed the course and committed themselves to the tweaks made by Laviolette, who plugged whatever holes he could in an ever-changing lineup to try and keep them afloat. He did that and much more.

None of this is to say that Laviolette has made perfect decisions 100% of the time, or that his decisions have been “fan-approved” 100% of the time (although it’s important to remember that simply disagreeing with a coach doesn’t mean he’s wrong... ahem). No coach ever has or ever will.

And neither he nor the team are out of the woods quite yet, because as they get Backstrom and Wilson back into the lineup and up to speed, they do so without the services of John Carlson and look to be without him for a very long time - a serious blow to the team’s improving defense. Both Laviolette and the team face a(nother) tough test to stay in the race while they await his return.

But Laviolette has made enough very good decisions this season, and shown the ability to make the necessary adjustments often enough, to earn the benefit of the doubt - and to put his team in a very good position to start the new year.

For that, he deserves plenty of credit.