The search for the Capitals' next head coach is in full swing as the team has reportedly interviewed three coaches for the position: Peter Laviolette, Gerard Gallant and Mike Babcock. Each head coach is a big-name candidate, but they are all available for a reason. Let's look at each coach's last job and see what it can tell us about what kind of head coach they could be in Washington or if there are any potential red flags.
Laviolette was in his sixth season as head coach of the Nashville Predators when he was fired in January. Nashville had a 19-15-7 record at the time and was four points out of a playoff spot. The firing was a surprise for a few reasons. First, Nashville's general manager is David Poile and he rarely fires anyone. He is the only general manager in Predators' history and, up to that point, the team had only ever had two head coaches: Laviolette and Barry Trotz. That's it, that's the list.
Second, most of Nashville's underlying numbers were good except in two areas. They were bad on special teams just as a whole and goaltending. When Laviolette was fired, Nashville had the league's third-worst save percentage at .889. There's not much a coach can do when his goalies can't make a save.
With 451 games behind the bench in Nashville, that is the longest tenure Laviolette has had anywhere and he may have become a victim of his own success with the Predators. No one really thought of them as contenders until they won the Western Conference in 2017. Nashville was eliminated in the second round the following year and the first round the year after as Laviolette was unable to lead them to a Cup championship as he had done with the Carolina Hurricanes.
One day there may be a movie made about the 2018 Vegas Golden Knights and how a team in its first season made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Gallant was the head coach of that team, but in just his third season in Vegas, he was fired in January and replaced by Peter DeBoer.
It was the ultimate "what have you done for me lately?" move and it was pretty shocking.
The Golden Knights were 24-19-6 when Gallant was let go. Vegas was very much in contention for the top spot in the Pacific...but so was everyone and clearly it was felt the team was underachieving based on its talent.
No one can take away from what Gallant accomplished in that 2017-18 season, but it does raise eyebrows that Vegas immediately improved after the coaching switch was made, so much so that Vegas is now in the conference final playing against the Dallas Stars. It also reinforced that Gallant seems to have a short shelf-life as a coach. Vegas is the longest Gallant has lasted in any of his previous three head coaching jobs and he was fired midway through just his third season.
Babcock made the jump from the Detroit Red Wings to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent coach, which you can do when you have won a Stanley Cup, two additional conference titles and coached Team Canada to Olympic gold twice. That success, however, did not follow him to Toronto where Babcock was fired in his fifth season in November. Despite the amount of talent on the Leafs roster, Toronto was just 9-10-4.
But the fact that this happened so early in the season, even with the team dealing with several injuries to the lineup, was a clear indication that opinions over one of the most prominent coaches in the league had soured. Babcock had failed to lead the Leafs even out of the first round of the playoffs. Part of that has to do with the NHL's ridiculous division system that pitted Toronto against the Boston Bruins for two straight years, but if you want to win the Cup, you have to beat good teams to get there and Toronto couldn't.
After he was fired, things got weird. A lot of stories started to come out about Babcock's harsh coaching methods. The biggest story was when he made Miitch Marner in his rookie season rank all the players on the team from the hardest working to the least and then shared that list with the team. He also scratched Jason Spezza for the opener. Spezza is a Toronto native who signed a very team-friendly deal to play for the Leafs. Scratching him for what would have been his first game ever even after he bought hundreds of tickets for friends and family was an unnecessary embarrassment of a player who the team needed to be a leader. Perhaps even more damning were the stories of verbal abuse he delivered to Johan Franzen while the head coach in Detroit.
These kinds of things go past just being a disciplinarian like general manager Brian MacLellan is looking for. Babcock would have to know he couldn't coach the same way in Washington.
But even if Babcock says he will turn it down a notch, he was not able to get a Toronto team full of offensive talent and with a mediocre defense even past the first round of the playoffs. With a team built similarly in Washington -- even if it has more veteran experience and has won a Cup in the past -- why would he be able to make it work with the Caps when he couldn't with the Leafs?