When hockey finally returns in 2021, the Capitals will have their sights set on the Stanley Cup. Every team enters each season with questions that need to be answered. We are looking at the biggest questions facing the Capitals in 2021.
Today's question: What effect will Peter Laviolette have in his first season as head coach?
Most coaches have a grace period when they enter their first season with a new team. That will not be the case in Washington as Peter Laviolette prepares to take over behind the bench.
It seems like people have been declaring the Caps' championship window closed every year for several years now, but, let's face it, the clock is ticking. Alex Ovechkin is 35, Nicklas Backstrom is 33, Carl Hagelin is 32, Lars Eller is 31, John Carlson and Brenden Dillon are 30 and T.J. Oshie will turn 34 in December. Washington cannot simply write off the 2021 season as the first season under a new coach because the window may well slam shut after this season.
The 2021 season is also going to be shortened. We don't know exactly how long it will be yet, but it is going to be fewer than 82 games. Each game is going to be more important and the Caps cannot afford to have a month adjustment period when the season begins trying to get used to their new coach.
Washington needs to improve, and it needs to improve quickly.
One of the biggest areas the team needs to improve on from the prior two seasons is motivation. The Caps were wildly inconsistent during the tenure of Todd Reirden and at times looked unmotivated. At no point was this more evident than in the 2020 postseason when the Caps appeared to sleepwalk their way through a five-game defeat at the hands of the New York Islanders. When Laviolette was hired, he was hired as a disciplinarian, someone known for holding his players accountable. This was one of the main reasons for his hire and something that should bring with it immediate results.
The biggest area on the ice in which the team needs to improve is on defense. Here is how Laviolette's prior team, the Nashville Predators ranked in goals allowed in each of Laviolette's five full seasons behind the bench:
When combining the stats from 2014-15 through the 2018-19 season Nashville ranked tied for first in goals against. Considering the Predators ranked 23rd in goals allowed in 2013-14 prior to Laviolette's arrival, clearly Laviolette and new assistant coach Kevin McCarthy -- who will be in charge of defensemen -- have a clear positive impact on team defense.
Offensively, the biggest issue has been depth scoring, but there's good news on that front. While the Caps did not do much to address the team's need for depth scoring in the bottom six during the offseason, Laviolette/McCarthy's system calls for defensemen to be aggressive in the offensive attack. Even if Washington cannot depend on the bottom two lines for scoring, they may get more points from the blue line.
But the ticking clock of the championship will hang over this team all season and up until the moment it becomes clear this championship era of the team has finally passed. Because of that, the biggest question regarding Laviolette's impact on the team will be how quickly his impact will be felt.
Washington will be the fifth NHL team Laviolette has coached in his career. He took each of the last three all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and he was able to do so relatively quickly. He led Nashville to the Final in his third year as head coach, Philadelphia in his very first season behind the bench and he won the Cup with the Hurricanes in his second season in Carolina, but his first full one.
Laviolette is not only able to have an impact on his teams, he is able to do so quickly. That will be critical in Year 1 for Washington.