So the transition from Todd Reirden to Peter Laviolette behind the bench must be miserable, right?
“I’ve been through five or six of these, I think,” said T.J. Oshie, the winger who’s filling in at center, “and this one’s been going great.”
“Lavi has a means of getting guys to buy in very quickly,” fellow winger Tom Wilson said, “and demanding that respect and that accountability from his players.”
So here are the Capitals, where they annually seem to be in February: tied for first place in the revamped East Division. Heading into play Tuesday night, no team in the NHL had more points. Their 5-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on Monday was their first in regulation through 10 games — and was a game they should have put away.
But in a season shortened to 56 games by the coronavirus, in which they just completed a six-game homestand with no fans rocking the red and no third-period bellows to unleash the fury, there are already two things noticeable about Laviolette’s bunch: They’re pretty darn good, and there’s lots (and lots) of room to get better.
“The game, for me, is not where I want it to be yet,” Laviolette said via Zoom after practice Tuesday. “Not where the players want it to be.”
That’s telling. And promising.
You know what this feels like? It feels like when Barry Trotz arrived for the 2014-15 season. The Caps, under first-time head coach Adam Oates, had missed the playoffs the year before — the only season since 2008 that’s the case. Trotz, a veteran, came with credibility and established accountability. He said, simply: Here’s how we do things. If you don’t, we’ll find someone else.
After two seasons and two first-round playoff exits under Reirden, another first-time head coach, that’s Laviolette’s role now. It’s not an overhaul, because the personnel — while graying a bit — is still capable. Rather, it’s a reestablishing of responsibility, habits and communication. Roles are earned, not granted.
Take Jakub Vrana. He has the talent to be a top-six forward on virtually any team. Yet when he checked out mentally and repeated the same mistakes, he was essentially told: “Conor Sheary’s playing better than you. You’re a better player than Conor Sheary, but down to the fourth line you go.”
Vrana had to earn his second-line job back.
“I think Lavi’s very good at being honest about what he expects on the ice, how he wants it to happen,” Oshie said. “He’s very upfront about our video meetings and why we’re seeing certain clips and why not. He makes it very easy to understand what is going to bring us success. We’ve got a lot of guys — or everyone — who already believes in it. We see it on the ice.”
And, for now, in the standings.
It seems obvious in retrospect, but what this experienced group needed was an experienced coach. It was easy to see why Reirden was hired: After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, Trotz elected to resign. Reirden had been here as a part of Trotz’s staff, which restored better habits, more responsibility and a consistent structure regardless of who was available on a given night. Every head coach has to be a first-time head coach at some point, right?
It just didn’t work — which is something of a theme for this franchise. Bruce Cassidy begot Glen Hanlon who gave way to Bruce Boudreau who was fired midseason for Dale Hunter who stepped down and was replaced by Oates. To be fair, Boudreau injected life into the franchise with an exciting brand of hockey that took advantage of what was, at the time, a young core. But throw Reirden into the mix, and that’s six first-time head coaches in the past 16 seasons, each of whom failed to get the Caps out of the second round of the playoffs.
And while it’s far too early to draw conclusions about Laviolette’s tenure, there’s no Capitals staffer who, on the night before the season started, would have turned down 15 of a possible 20 points in the first 10 games.
And that’s if captain Alex Ovechkin hadn’t lost four games to covid-19 protocols. And if center Evgeny Kuznetsov — a potential star — hadn’t played just four games before he entered covid-19 protocols. And if top goalie Ilya Samsonov hadn’t been limited to two games after testing positive for the coronavirus. And if third-line center Lars Eller hadn’t missed three games — with a fourth to come Thursday — with an upper-body injury.
“That’s probably going to be a theme for this season with the whole covid protocols and injuries,” Wilson said. “To say that we’re going to be out of the woods all of a sudden isn’t going to be the case.”
Which means there has to be a reliable system to fall back on. Laviolette had neither a full training camp nor a single exhibition game to teach his charges. He still can’t hold full team meetings because of the protocols. He is juggling the lineup in ways previously unimaginable. And he is playing with a fraction of his roster.
His mind-set: Teach about the mistakes that led to the loss against Boston. Have a good practice Wednesday. Travel to New York. Beat the Rangers on Thursday.
“This is the hand that we’re dealt right now, losing the guys for 10 days, 14 days, and even the repercussions from that of not being able to be on the ice in practice is not ideal for a lineup, ideal for our team or ideal for our game,” Laviolette said. “The injuries that have happened, two centermen being out of the lineup. But it is what it is. We’ve got to win games. We’ve got to show up and compete and get the job done.”
Simple, but thus far effective. It makes you think: Coaching, in hockey, matters. A lot. Ovechkin is this franchise’s biggest star, but the game’s biggest stars can’t play the proportion of minutes NBA players bear. If Ovi’s on the ice for 20 minutes, others have to do the job as effectively for the other 40.
To date, Laviolette has the Caps doing that more than they aren’t.
“The 60 minutes is what you’re after,” Laviolette said. “It’s what we’re after.”
This early in a shortened season, the fact that they haven’t achieved those perfect 60 minutes isn’t a problem. It’s actually reason for optimism. The Caps are off to a flying start, and they’re not yet playing what anyone expects to be their best.
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