Peter Laviolette knew what the first question was going to be about as he stepped behind the podium.
The night before, Washington’s second-year head coach had moved into 10th place all-time in NHL coaching victories with No. 692, passing Dick Irvin and pulling within eight wins of ninth place Mike Babcock.
“Tommy thought we should change the subject,” Laviolette joked, referring to the team’s manager of media relations, Tommy Chalk. “And I thought that was a good idea.”
Like most hockey coaches, Laviolette loathes talking about himself and, specifically, his accomplishments. To his chagrin, he was pressed on the topic du jour anyway.
Cracking the top-10, after all, is a significant milestone in a season that began with another. In the opener, Laviolette passed John Tortorella for the most wins by an American-born coach in NHL history.
“I’m fortunate,” Laviolette said. “Right now I’m working with a great organization, great coaches, great staff, incredible players and with that we’ve been able to win some games.”
Some games, huh? Things are goinga lot better than that. Consider:
- Entering Thursday’s slate, Washington was tied with Metropolitan Division rival Carolina for the second-most points in the league with 45, just one behind two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay.
- The Caps are fourth in goals for and eighth in goals against and boast a differential of +29,which isgood for second in the league.
- Alex Ovechkin has seemingly turned back the clock and, at 36, ranks second in goals (22); Evgeny Kuznetsov is averaging more than a point per game (1.07) for the second time in his career and the first time since 2017-18, and John Carlson sits third in points among defensemen (30).
Ask Laviolette’s players for the reason the Caps are off to such a strong start despite a slew of injuries and Covid-19-related concerns, and they’ll tell you it’s his ability to connect with everyone in the room, both the stars and rank-and-file alike.
In short, Laviolette knows where his players’ buttons are and when it’s time to push them, they say.
“He’s a very honest coach,” Conor Sheary said. “He lets you know where you stand. He lets you know when you’re playing well. He lets you know when you’re not playing well, and what you need to fix. That’s huge in coaching. Sometimes you get sat out or you miss a couple of shifts and you don’t know why.”
“He connects with everyone—and that honesty is a big part of that. Even when Ovi is not playing his best, he’s probably letting him know that he needs to change a few things. Players respect that.”
Added Nic Dowd: “For a player, that’s about all you can ask for. There’s a lot of coaches that like to play mind games and, quite honestly, it messes with the player’s mentality and it affects their performance on the ice.With Lavy, we all know where we stand. You know personally when you’ve had a good game and when you’ve had a bad game but I’ve never seen him lean on a guy or stress a guy out more to the point where he continues to have bad games. I’ve played for a lot of coaches that are like that, and it’s hard to get out from underneath that. He’s there to help, and he wants you to succeed.”
Dowd, in particular, has benefitted from Laviolette’s ability to identify a player’s strengths and help them grow their game. Prior to Laviolette’s arrival, Dowd averaged 10:50 of ice time per game. The past two seasons, he’s averaged about 14 minutes a night and centers one of Laviolette’s most trusted lines.
“I was put with Garnet Hathaway and Carl Hagelin right out of the gate,” Dowd said. “He told us in training camp two years ago what he expected. As a line, you’re not sure if you’re going to get there or not, right? …With a couple of injuries and COVID issues that happened last year, we were put into a different type of role. He trusted us with that, and we also played really well. He was able to see what we were able to do, we got an opportunity and we took advantage of it.”
Dowd also pointed to Laviolette’s feel for when to push an individual or thegroupand, just as important, when to back off.
“He has a good pulse on how people are feeling and how the room is feeling and he does a really good job of pulling guys into the fold,” Dowd said.
Like Wednesday’s team meeting a MedStar Capitals Iceplex. Laviolette wanted the six players in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol to be involved after several days of isolation so Martin Fehérváry, Nick Jensen, Justin Schultz, Daniel Sprong, Vitek Vanecek and Dennis Cholowski were brought into the dressing room via FaceTime.
“It was just to say hello and have them be a part of it,” Laviolette said.
It was a small gesture, but it speaks to Laviolette’s M.O. as a coach who’s tough but caring, demanding but exceedingly fair.
“There’s no gray area with him,” said longtime lieutenant Kevin McCarthy, who has been by Laviolette’s side for the past 18 seasons, beginning in Carolina, where they won a Stanley Cup together in 2006. “Everyone has a defined role on the team, and if you perform, you’re going to play.It’s one thing that’s been consistent with the way he’s coached his whole career: if you’re playing well, he’ll let you know, and if you’re not, he’ll let you know, too.”
“A lot of times with a coach,” McCarthy continued, “if you don’t communicate, the player is sitting there wondering, ‘Why am I not playing?’ Or, ‘What do I have to do?’ With Peter, there’s no guessing. You know. It’s pretty black and white.”
There’s no guessing because, as McCarthy said, Laviolette can be as direct as they come. He doesn’t play favorites, either.
“He’ll bring a guy in individually — not in front of his teammates – and show him (on video), ‘Hey listen, this is not how we play. This is how we do it.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player or you’re on the fourth line, everyone is held accountable the same way.”
Through 32 games this season, the Caps have a record of 19-6-7 for a points percentage of .703, or the second-best mark of Laviolette’s career.
Notably, that impressive percentage has come in what has easily been one of the challenging campaigns that Laviolette has faced from a personnel standpoint.
When healthy, Washington boasts one of the league’s deepest and most talented rosters. This season, however, the Caps have been anything but healthy. In all, they’ve lost 120 man games to injury or illness, including the long-term absences of No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom, who is back but appeared in only two of 32 the team’s games, and top-six winger Anthony Mantha, who has been sidelined the last 22 contest with a shoulder injury. For a long stretch, the Caps were without $20-plus million in players. During another spell, they were missing 3/5th of their first power play unit.
“It’s been crazy,” he said.
Laviolette credited the Hershey Bears and their head coach, Scott Allen, for preparing the organization’s youngsters tocome up and fill in capably. In fact, 10 rookies have seen time in D.C. Nine have recorded at least one point, while goaltendingprospect Zach Fucale notched a shutout in his NHL debut.
The Caps’veterans have praised the prospects, too. But they also noted Laviolette’s leadership, saying he’s set a standard and does not tolerate using personnel issues as an excuse.
“It starts with Peter at the top,” Sheary said. “He’s giving us the message that it doesn’t really matter who’s in. If we give our best effort, if we all work hard and work together, we’re going to come out with results. Sometimes you might lose a game but as long as the process of (generating scoring) chances and giving up chances and special teams are trending in the right direction, you can build off of that. All year we’ve done a good job of that.”
As the calendar flips to 2022, the focus in Washington is going to turn from regular season wins to earning them when it really counts. The Caps didn’t advance far in Laviolette’s first year postseason behind the bench as Ovechkin and Co. got bounced by the Bruins in the first round amid injuries and COVID complications.
But the feeling around Washington these days is one of optimism.
There’s hope that the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak is in the review. There’s hope that Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Carlson will stay hot, Backstrom’s return will help the power play get going and the goaltending will continue to mature.
There’s also a lot of faith in the man behind the bench.
“It’s a huge accomplishment to get top-10 all-time,” Sheary said.“Obviously his system has worked throughout out his whole career.He just has respect around the room. When you have that many wins and you’ve been around that long you’re doing something right.”
Top photo: Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images