Capitals’ Future and Current Goals Require Rookies to Play More

Washington Capitals’ head coach Peter Laviolette’s window to bring another Stanley Cup to D.C. is closing fast. Although he’s only been with the team for two seasons now, his goal was to lead the veteran roster to yet another championship. Adversely, that will ultimately be his downfall if he doesn’t adapt.

Laviolette needs to be Mr. Right, but not Mr. Right Now

Laviolette (57) is undoubtedly a Hall of Fame coach. Soon after the 2021-22 season started, he was the winningest American-born head coachIn NHL history. His current record of 693 wins is 10th in NHL history and 3rd among active coaches. He trails only Barry Trotz, Lindy Ruff, and Lindy Ruff.

When he was appointed as the New York Islanders’ head coach, his career at the helm a NHL franchise began in 2001. Laviolette was the first to take over after seven consecutive years of missing the playoffs. Laviolette led them to the playoffs in both of his seasons there, before moving to Carolina in 2003-04.

After a rebuilding season, he was able to place the Hurricanes in the playoffs. He and Carolina won in 2006 the Stanley Cup. The team lost the next two playoffs and he was fired in 2008.

Washington Capitals Head Coach Peter LavioletteAmy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

In 2009, Laviolette was named the Philadelphia Flyers’ coach. In 2009, Laviolette was named the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. Laviolette was fired three weeks into the 2013-14 season, after being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals the following two years and failing to make it to the playoffs the third year.

After his time with the Predators, Trotz was transferred to Nashville as Trotz’s replacement. Laviolette was Nashville’s head coach for four seasons, and led them to the playoffs in three of those five seasons. He also took Nashville to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. Midway through the 2019-20 season, he was fired.        

He was appointed head coach of the Capitals on September 15, 2020. He has led five teams to playoffs and three to the Stanley Cup Final. But taking over in Washington was an entirely different story. He inherited a perennial contender … and postseason underachiever.

Washington’s Short Leash

As with any franchise, Washington has high expectations. If the team does not collapse, it is likely that the Capitals will reach the postseason. The Capitals have been to the playoffs in 14 of their 15 previous years, which includes a Stanley Cup title that was still a little bit fresh in 2018.

Washington has had seven different coaches to coincide with Alex Ovechkin becoming a top-level player. Three of these have been in Washington since 2018. That may not stand out to some, but what it shows is that management is dedicated to winning another championship now, and just reaching the playoffs isn’t good enough. Heck, even winning the Stanley Cup wasn’t good enough to offer Trotz a better package.

Todd Reidern was a disaster (2019-2020). He was Mr. Right because he was already labeled heir apparent and knew the team well and was an easy transition to continue the momentum after a title … so was the reasoning. Reirden finished 5-10 in the playoffs before being let go following his second early exit.

Coach Tenure Wins Point % Playoff Game wins Playoff win %
Peter Laviolette 2021-Current 56 .677 1 .200
Todd Reirden 2019-2020 89 .642 5 .333
Barry Trotz* 2015-2018 205 .677 63 .571
Adam Oates 2013-2014 65 .565 7 .429
Dale Hunter 2012-2012 30 .558 14 .500
Bruce Boudreau 2008-2012 201 .672 37 .459
Glen Hanlon 2004-2008 122 .408 0 .000
Capitals’ head coaches since Alex Ovechkin arrived in Washington. *Trotz won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 2018.

It’s not about winning in Washington; it’s about winning it all. Bruce Boudreau (2008)-2012 was tired of the playoff disappointments that management had to endure. Although Adam Oates was a great coach, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates weren’t the best. Trotz was their winner, but they screwed it up. After Reirden, they now have Laviolette… who is 1-4 in the playoffs as the Capitals’ coach.

The questions to ponder are how short is Laviolette’s leash and how willing is he to adapt. The answers are “very” and “not very” at the moment.     

Laviolette Must Adapt

General manager Brian Maclellan and Laviolette aren’t focusing on the future, but that’s what they need to be doing. The veterans are aging and missing more and more time, but the emphasis of past deadline moves and coaching strategy seems to be more about furthering legacies that don’t really need any more bolstering.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers

Ovechkin, 36, is averaging 22:03 of ice time per game — the third-highest of his career. Yes, he’s playing at a Hart-level right now, but everything is a trade-off, and the power-play woes can be considered a direct connection to Ovechkin being worn. This team, which was always dangerous and had a man advantage, is currently 29th in power play percentage (14.6). That’s not working and they won’t win the Stanley Cup unless that changes.

Considering Laviolette’s preference for physical play, it adds to the overuse of veterans. The answer to the team’s problems is already on the roster, but it’s up to Laviolette to utilize the luxury that’s been gifted to him this season.

Utilize the Rookies more

Washington used 13 rookies between 2021-22. Their surprise development, which was quick and out of necessity, can offset this. Overuse of VeteransSecure the future success of the franchise.

Related: 2 Struggling Capitals and 4 Former Capitals that had Good Seasons

The rookies weren’t expected to contribute as much as they have; it’s a surprise there was even talent in the system after the picks Maclellan has given away over the years, especially considering it’s really only worked out once. Yet, the Hershey Bears, Washington’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, is first in the AHL Atlantic Division, second in the Eastern Conference, with 40 points. As an amusing note, they also rank 7th among the AHL’s power-play percentage (19.3).

Aliaksei Protas, Washington Capitals
Aliaksei Protas, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers

AliakseiProtas, Connor McMichael and Brett Leason have all provided depth to their roles, improving each time they take to the ice. Martin Fehervary can be removed from the equation and the 11 other skaters (goalie Zach Fucale the other rookie unaccounted) average only 10:31 minutes of ice time over a total of 120 appearances. Every rookie has at least one point in this season’s competition. McMichael (Leason), and Protas (collectively for 23) have all recorded at least one. If they’re trusted that much to fill the roster, those minutes should be higher.

They don’t skate because they have to, but they are there for the purpose of contributing. They deserve more opportunities to do that. This isn’t a call for them to take over the reins, but it’s a call to let them develop more while taking pressure off the veteran stars. To be fair, Laviolette has adjusted accordingly with the roster, but it’s time to take it one step further.

The good thing about implementing this strategy now is that it’s only January.    

Franchise Transition

The Capitals have eight restricted/unrestricted free agents to deal with this summer, and five of them (Justin Schultz, Matt Irwin, Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek, Daniel Sprong, Michal Kempny) will likely be allowed to test the market. There may be nine more free agents in the summer of 2023.

Two years. They have two years with the bulk of this current roster, and Laviolette has two years as well — maybe. If he’s not going to foster in the youth now, then he’s not the right guy for the future of the franchise. Despite all his success, he is still 1-3 in Stanley Cup Finals. His overall regular-season win rate is just.594, which is 11th among active coaches. This percentage drops to.514 for career playoff games, and he has been fired from three of his four other franchises.

Related: Capitals’ Recent Struggles Should be Wake-up Call

The rookies have proven they can play, and more play will gain that experience they will need so the team doesn’t fall into a rebuild. This season is more important because it will relieve the veterans of the responsibility and make them feel fresher for the Stanley Cup run.

Connor McMichael Washington Capitals
Connor McMichael Washington CapitalsJess Starr/The Hockey Writers

You can’t just keep acquiring veterans at the trade deadline (the one exception this year will be a goalie). To paraphrase “Right Now,” bubblegum punk act SR-71’s 2000 hit, “I know [Laviolette]It may not be [Mr.] Right, [he’ll] do right now.”

It’s vital that Laviolette puts his stubbornness aside and substitutes it with trust in the team’s youth. His window is shutting faster than this generation of Capitals’ last chance at another Cup. He needs it. The rookies need him. The franchise needs it.

To further the above paraphrase, possibly foreshadowing the future, Laviolette is “slowing driving [Caps’ fans] insane, but now that’s over.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, but it can be argued that Capitals’ fans have earned the right to be impatient.

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