The Washington Capitals opened a new era this week when head coach Spencer Carbery and the rest of his staff stepped out onto the ice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex for Training Camp. The Caps hired Carbery in June after they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.
One of the contributing factors to that postseason absence was the performance of the team’s power play unit. The Caps have seen their once vaunted power play drop to the 20th best unit in the NHL.
Carbery, in his previous two seasons as an assistant for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was the mastermind behind the team’s power play that sat at or near the top of the league.
While the Caps’ power play hasn’t run drills yet, Carbery will experiment during the preseason as he considers bigger systematic changes versus smaller modifications.
“It’s something that we’ve talked at length about,” Carbery said of the coaching staff. “We’ve looked at things and we will continue to. I’ll tell you, if I can give you anything, is we’re looking at different things and part of what you’ll see through Training Camp and exhibition games is what we’ve talked about and what we’re looking at. Whether that looks drastically different or whether it looks the same, the work behind the scenes of trying to figure out the best way possible to maximize that group is being done.”
Prior to Peter Laviolette’s time in charge of the club, the Caps operated as the second-best team on the power play in the NHL (22.2%) when you combine the numbers from Barry Trotz’ and Todd Reirden’s tenure as head coaches.
In Toronto, the season before Carbery’s arrival, the Maple Leafs scuffled to a 20 percent effectiveness (which matches the percentage the Caps have put up the past two seasons). Carbery arrived and the Toronto unit shot up to first in the league at 27.3 percent effectiveness in the 2021-22 season and second during the 2022-23 season, behind only the Edmonton Oilers.
Carbery won’t be primarily responsible for the power play in DC though. That job will belong to new assistant coach Kirk Muller. Muller has a history of running power plays in the league, taking up those duties with the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens, and St. Louis Blues over the past nine seasons.
Muller’s best efforts with a man advantage group came in St. Louis where he coached the Blues to the NHL’s third-highest success rate (21.9 percent) across two seasons (2014-2016). Carbery talked about the process of combining his past work with Muller’s to come up with the best result for the Caps.
“[Kirk’s] been doing this a long time so he has some great ideas with how we can give teams a different look,” Carbery said. “I think we agree on this – penalty kills have evolved and now are so dialed in with their pre-scouts. The perfect example is what everybody here has watched the last two, three, four years. Now, teams have heavily pre-scouted [Alex Ovechkin] and they’ve figured out ways to neutralize that or take certain things away. They’ve spent time on it and their pre-scouts are extensive.”
Ovechkin’s 14 power play goals during the 2022-23 campaign was his lowest single-season (82 games) total since the 2011-12 season where he scored 13 times a man to the good. The 3:38 of power play ice time per game that Ovechkin played during that season over a decade ago was the lowest in his career. By comparison, he played 4:42 of power play ice time last year and yet only scored one more goal.
Carbery knows just how advanced pre-scouting of power plays, particularly the Caps’, has become in the NHL because he got a firsthand view of it during his two year’s in Toronto. There, Dean Chynoweth, coached a Leafs power play that has killed off 82 percent of opposing power plays over the past two seasons, good for sixth best in the league.
“I just watched a phenomenal penalty kill coach in Toronto and how they do it there and he brought it from Carolina,” Carbery said. “My point is that it’s important that we’re trying to find ways to stay ahead of penalty kills, keep them off balance, and give them different looks. So, when they go into their pre-scouts it isn’t necessarily, ‘This is what they’re going to show.’ [Instead], the penalty kill coach is going, ‘They might show this, this, this, this, and this.’ And, then you get the players going, ‘I don’t know what’s coming tonight.’ There’s value in that.”
The Caps have long utilized a 1-3-1 setup and rarely tweaked it. The system was first installed by Adam Oates back in 2012 and then ran by assistant coach Blaine Forsythe for the last 11 seasons. Forsythe departed along with fellow assistant Kevin McCarthy shortly after Laviolette was announced to be out as head coach. Those departures give Carbery and Muller freedom to look at the unit with fresh eyes and try new things.
The Capitals’ power play getting back up to speed will be vitally important as Alex Ovechkin tries to track down Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record of 894. The Great Eight is just 72 goals shy of tying The Great One and 299 of Ovi’s 822 career goals have come with the Capitals up a man.
Carbery spoke about the importance of that potential accomplishment and how serious he’ll take it as Ovechkin’s coach back in June.
“It’s a huge responsibility for me as a head coach,” Carbery said then. “I’ve watched and seen his greatness up close indirectly. It’s my job as a head coach to put him in situations where he can be successful and that’s what my challenge is and I don’t take that lightly at all. That’ll work into how we play as a group. One of my focuses is how we put him in situations to succeed.”
Headline photo: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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