National Post (National Edition)
Laviolette faces challenge like none before
Anxious was the word Peter Laviolette used when asked about coaching the Washington Capitals in less than one week's time.
He added that he did not want to say he was “nervous.” But nobody would blame him if that were how he felt.
It's been almost a year since Laviolette was fired as the head coach of the Nashville Predators. It's the longest he's been away from hockey. And now, after a delayed start to a 56-game season that involves new divisions and new safety measures, he is taking over a team that is expected to win at least one more Stanley Cup before Alex Ovechkin gets too old — or simply decides to bolt after his contract expires at the end of this year.
Adding to the challenges is that Laviolette has yet to formally meet Ovechkin in person or learn the nicknames of the players he will be shouting at a week from now.
“It's just completely different,” Laviolette said of an unusual off-season due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Typically, a coach would be here in the rink a month before the season starts and while you're not allowed to work with the players and I respect the rules, you see them and you bump into them and you might go to dinner or you could sit down with him at breakfast and just talk and get the normal little bit of information.”
So, yeah, anxious or nervous or whatever you want to call it, Laviolette sure is feeling it. After all, the last time he was behind a bench was on Jan. 6.
Considering all that's occurred during that time, it seems even longer.
“It's been a year,” the 56-year-old head coach said in a Zoom conference call on Tuesday. “And I've been off before. I've been off for six months or seven months or eight months. But this might be the longest I've been off … I'm excited to get going and looking forward to it. Yeah, I've been off for a while. Looking to shake the rust off pretty quick and get back at it.”
It's not like he has much choice.
Training camp opens for the Capitals on Sunday. Eleven days later, the shortened season begins with back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres. From there, it's a sprint to try to make the playoffs in a newly formed East Division that is crammed with championship-level contenders such as Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as the up-and-coming Sabres, New York Islanders and New York Rangers.
It might not be as challenging as the all-Canadian North Division. But if you think Washington is a lock to finish in the top four just because they've won the Metropolitan Division in each of the past five years, think again.
This isn't the same Capitals
team that won the Stanley Cup in 2018. They are older and slower at some positions, and younger and more inexperienced at others. And now, they have company.
“It's going to be competitive,” said GM Brian MacLellan. “Our division is tough. It's got a lot of good teams. It's going to be interesting to see how it pans out in the end.”
Indeed, the Capitals haven't won a playoff round since they hoisted the Cup a couple of years ago. Coincidentally, that was also the same time Barry Trotz left Washington to coach the New York Islanders.
Like Trotz, who came over from Nashville and convinced Ovechkin to sacrifice offence in order to win a championship, Laviolette said he intends on making the Capitals a stronger defensive team. That's not exactly a surprise. With Braden Holtby no longer on the team and Henrik Lundqvist out for the season with a heart condition, goaltending duties will rest on the 23-year-old shoulders of Ilya Samsonov, who has just 26 career NHL games under his belt, and 39-year-old Craig Anderson.
MacLellan pointed out in a Zoom conference call last week that Samsonov is about the same age as Holtby was when he took over the reins and became a 41-game winner. Based on last year's numbers, it might not be unrealistic to plot a similar path for the young Russian goalie.
Then again, in a season with so many question marks, you never really know.
“Obviously, he has something to prove to everybody,” MacLellan said of Samsonov, who went 16-6-2 with a .913 save percentage. “He's got the skill. He's got a good mental makeup. So all indications are that he can handle it. And it's going to be a leap in his development here this year.”
As quickly as the team needs Samsonov to become a No. 1 goalie, the Capitals need Laviolette to find his rhythm behind the bench. He needs Ovechkin to fully buy into the new system and for Evgeny Kuznetsov to bounce back from a 52-point season and for the defence, which includes a couple of new faces, to insulate their goaltenders like never before.
It's a challenge. But the biggest challenge is the lack of time needed to get it done.
“Everything is fresh and it's new and that's what makes it exciting,” said Laviolette. “I'm excited to teach a system that they haven't seen before and really work on the identity and being able to play that in a ferocious way. But for me, it's made it just a little bit more challenging.”