In the wake of the Capitals' 2020 postseason exit, general manager Brian MacLellan elected to relieve head coach Todd Reirden of his duties and replace him with Peter Laviolette. Now, one year into Laviolette's tenure, has he delivered?
It is easy to look at the postseason result, a third straight first-round exit, and say simply no. You don't hire a coach of Laviolette's caliber just to bridge the gap to a rebuild. He was brought in to compete for a Cup, a goal the team full short of.
But a coach does lead a team to a championship just by getting hired and telling them to score more than the other team. It's more nuanced than that.
When Laviolette was hired, MacLellan was very clear that he felt the culture of the team was slipping and he felt Laviolette was the man to build it back up.
"Peter has a track record of establishing a culture, and it's one of his priorities," MacLellan said in September when introducing Laviolette. "And part of that culture is getting guys to play the right way and holding them accountable to play the right way. I think it's a big priority when you talk to him, so I have confidence because he's done it in the past and it's a priority the way he speaks about it, the way he communicates about it. We both, me and I assume the players, [know] that's a big strength of his moving forward and it's a big reason why we hired him."
The results on the ice may not have been there in the first round against Boston, but in terms of establishing a culture and holding players accountable, that was mission accomplished, according to MacLellan.
"I think he does a real good job of addressing issues as they come up during the year, as they come up every year," MacLellan said. "He's a good communicator. I think he defines expectations, he shows people what he wants from them and he addresses it if it's not being attended to. We're very happy with the way he's come in and provided leadership to our team, to our organization."
Laviolette's first year was made more difficult by the pandemic as it prevented a lot of the one-on-one interaction he would have liked to have had as head coach.
"It was a challenging year, I think the interaction you’re talking about with the players, it was not the same by any stretch that it has been in years past," Laviolette said. "Meetings going out on HUDL calls, so many meetings, just not in-person meetings that you weren’t able to meet with a group. You’re not able to take the players and put them in a locker room and say, ‘Hey, let’s have a chat for 10 minutes.’ Those things didn’t happen this year. So it just made it a little bit more difficult."
But while the Caps may have lost in a similar fashion in the playoffs, you could already see the impact the change of culture was having on the team.
Like in the 2020 postseason, the Caps were eliminated in the first round in just five games. That is pretty much where the comparables stop as they were two entirely different series.
In 2020, Washington was walloped by a New York Islanders team that stuck to its system. The Caps could not stay out of the penalty box, could not gain control of the front of the net on either side of the ice, showed no discipline over the course of the series and ultimately fell in what looked like a non-competitive series apart from the first two periods of Game 1 and the Game 4 win.
In 2021, the Caps were three minutes away from taking a 2-0 series lead over the Boston Bruins. A Washington team with health issues bothering almost every top player on the team and who had three different goalies start forced the Bruins into overtime in each of the first three games of the series. Clearly, they ran out of gas after those first three games, but no one who watched the series from beginning to end could conclude they showed the same lack of competitiveness from the prior year.
While the 2020 team looked disinterested, the 2021 team played its system to a Game 1 win and had effectively shut down the Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak line until an injury in Game 2 forced Lars Eller from the game, thus ruining the matchup Laviolette had managed.
From an individual level, when MacLellan spoke in 2020 about holding players accountable, it was widely believed he was alluding to Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov again had his issues in 2021, but the coronavirus primarily kept him out of the lineup rather than any discipline meted out by Laviolette. Still, Kuznetsov was benched for a game after being late for a team function and his 16:34 of ice time per game was the lowest average ice time he has had since his first full season in the NHL in 2014-15.
So it does appear a message was sent to Kuznetsov by the head coach.
According to Kuznetsov, he heard that message loud and clear.
“[I] ask for how I can be better and what should I do to get more ice time and all that stuff," Kuznetsov said. "And I think during the year we know each other more and more and find a way how to communicate and I think we have a great relationship between us and there is nothing to worry about.”
Another inconsistent year for Kuznetsov has fueled trade speculation, but if he does return it appears there is enough of a foundation there for player and coach to continue to work on their relationship in the future and that's really what it's about: The future.
No, not the "future" in terms of a rebuild, but future in terms of building up the culture so this team can continue to compete for a Cup for as long as the championship window remains open.
A team cannot win a Cup without a strong locker room culture. That had eroded in recent years under Reirden but seems to be back on solid footing under Laviolette.
"It's tough for a new guy to come in, establish a new system given the circumstances we had at training camp and all the protocol stuff that was going on," MacLellan said. "I think [Laviolette's] a person that is a natural communicator that likes to be in front of people, and he was limited in his ability to do that. I think what he's established this year will benefit for us next year. I think people understand how we're playing, how he operates and I think we'll have a good jump on the season next year."
"I believe that this team can still win," Laviolette said. "Those are just words, we’ll need action next year and we’ll need results to back that up. But I’m excited about the group that’s here and I’m excited about next season."