“He said, ‘You can’t play this game at the weight you’re playing at,’” Ward recalled Tuesday. “‘You’re 227 pounds. You want to play for my team, you got to come back and play lighter.’
“And I thought to myself, ‘Who the f--- is this guy? This is my introduction?’”
Introducing Peter Laviolette, the new coach of the Washington Capitals. If you don’t want to hear how your pandemic haircut actually looks, don’t ask.
It is nearly 17 years later, and Laviolette is a lot of things he wasn’t back when he had that jarring first chat with Ward. He is experienced, with 18 years and 1,210 games as an NHL head coach. He is a Stanley Cup winner with Carolina, and he took both Philadelphia and Nashville to the finals. He is, at 55, not a finished product but a known commodity. This hire is not full of guesswork and hope, which is important for a franchise and fan base that now expect something other than first-round flameouts.
“I just think he’s one of the best coaches in the league,” said Rod Brind’Amour, the captain on that Cup-winning Carolina team, the Hurricanes’ coach now.
This is the man the Washington Capitals needed at this moment. A lot of the why can be reflected in that first conversation with Ward. In that little meeting, there was directness, there was accountability, there was communication. Nonsense was shown the door. Ward walked away ticked off — but thinking.
“As the summer went on, and I knew I still wanted to have a career, I realized what Lavi was doing,” Ward said by phone Tuesday. “He works harder than anybody in two worlds: He’s great at the X’s and O’s, and he’s also adept at figuring out what he has in the locker room and what he has to do for each guy. He has an uncanny skill at reading and understanding a player and knowing what he has to do to get the most out of him.”
If Todd Reirden had a downfall in his two seasons as the Capitals’ head man — after four seasons as a talented and vital assistant — it’s that too many players were something less than the best version of themselves, and a pair of first-round playoff exits resulted. The position of Washington Capitals coach is still colored by the guy who preceded Reirden, because Barry Trotz was still alive in the Eastern Conference finals — his Islanders play Tampa Bay Tuesday night to try to extend their season — when the Caps introduced Laviolette in the afternoon.
The task for General Manager Brian MacLellan: Find someone who can squeeze the most out of a group that, just 27 months ago, won the whole darn thing — under Trotz. That 2018 Cup came not because the Caps were the most talented they had ever been, because that might have been the two previous teams — Presidents’ Trophy winners both — but because they were accountable to each other.
There was a point in the Caps’ development when Trotz was installed to establish that very culture. Back then, in 2014, it was more of a complete attitude overhaul. Now, Laviolette only has to plug the leaks of a culture that had slipped, slowly but noticeably, under a first-time head coach.
“He’s a good teacher,” MacLellan said in an introductory news conference held via Zoom, a pandemic norm. “He’s a good communicator, a good motivator. Motivating is one of his strengths. I think he holds players accountable, and I think he does it in a good way — with integrity. He’s very honest.”
This is a big hire for the general manager. The reasons Trotz is having playoff success elsewhere while the Capitals are trying to find it again are understandable and not worth rehashing. But the optics remain lousy. Laviolette’s job is not to make Caps fans forget Trotz, because he will forever be the franchise’s first Cup-winning coach. Rather, it’s to turn in results — particularly playoff results — that remind fans Trotz isn’t the only coach ever to lift that massive chalice.
He’ll do it with a style he began forging in 1997-98 with the Wheeling Nailers of the East Coast Hockey League. Which means Evgeny Kuznetsov can plan to hear exactly why he hasn’t maxed out his potential for two straight seasons and in two straight playoffs. And Nick Jensen will hear how he can live up to the contract extension he signed. And Michal Kempny will be shown the difference between his 2019-20 self, which underwhelmed, and his essential 2018 presence. Carl Hagelin, Richard Panik — any and all. Shoot, if Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom slip in the example they set in their mid-30s, it won’t be muttered about behind closed doors. It’ll be addressed.
“He understands the players’ mind-set,” Brind’Amour said by phone. “He just has a great way of communicating the way he wants it done and gets the point across. I think it’s a unique talent to understand the game of hockey the way he does but let the players play, if that makes sense. That’s the biggest thing: He knows how to get the most out of the group, but he doesn’t overcoach them.”
Which sounds like a perfect fit for a veteran group that learned what it took to win it all but then allowed habits and discipline to stray. At each stop, Laviolette’s results have generally come quickly, which would fit the needs of Ovechkin (who turns 35 on Thursday), Backstrom (33 in November), T.J. Oshie (34 in December) and on and on. With Carolina, he finished out the 2003-04 season, endured the lockout, then won it all the following year.
“He became less of a hard ass,” Brind’Amour said. “I think he said, ‘This is not who I am.’ Coming out of that break, it was totally different. I remember him really adopting a family atmosphere. He was able to pull us together more than any other coach I had.”
He does it by pushing, for sure, and that approach doesn’t always yield the longest tenure. The Hurricanes didn’t make the playoffs in the two years following the Cup, and Laviolette was fired 25 games into the following season. He was hired in Philadelphia midway through 2009-10 and got the Flyers to the finals that very season but never again advanced past the second round; he was fired after an 0-3 start in 2013. In Nashville — where he took over for Trotz, who had never made it past the second round — he took the Predators to the finals in his third year and was fired midway through his sixth.
There are enough diverse experiences there, with enough teams at different points in their development, that a philosophy follows.
“I do believe in honesty,” Laviolette said. “I do believe in directness. I can be firm, and I can be compassionate.”
Along the way, he has learned small psychological tricks and tailored his style to his roster. With that Carolina team that won the Cup — a group with varying hockey pedigrees, Hall of Famers and castoffs alike — he had coins made up that read, “Whatever it takes.” During those playoffs, any Hurricane at any time could be asked to present his coin — or face a fine.
“He has the ability to get the most out of a player, better than anybody I played for,” Ward said. “He’s the coach that, if he tells you that putting a head through a wall will lead you to success — personally and from a team perspective — every single guy on the team will do it for him.”
MacLellan needs to hope that applies to Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. Two years ago, this team put its head through a wall — if not for Trotz, then for each other. Laviolette was hired to get it to do exactly that again.
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