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The Carbery Capitals: Assessing the new head coach’s impact

Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Spencer Carbery arrived in DC this summer backed by a pretty impressive resume for a 41-year-old, one which included both organizational familiarity and head coaching experience. Still, some of the biggest questions marks for the Caps coming into the 2023-24 season centered around Carbery and what he brings to the table as the 20th head coach in Washington Capitals’ history.

With eight games in the books, we’re starting to get some answers.

Eight games is still a small sample size, sure, but there’s no question that the system, the approach, and the player usage have all changed pretty dramatically in such a short time from what they once were under former coach Peter Laviolette.

Structure through neutral.

The Caps of old tended to rely a bit more on defensemen jumping into the rush to kickstart the attack; these days, you’re more likely to see those blueliners hold back, settling into more structured neutral zone passes to set up zone entries.

I mean, you’ll still see John Carlson flying up the ice at every chance, because…well, because it’s John Carlson and he’s damn good at it.

The rest of his blueline ‘mates, however, are tapping the brakes a bit and focusing on just getting the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a permanent part of Carbery’s system or a way station to a more fluid, defense-driven attack as some of the younger defensemen earn more freedom and the team really gets comfortable with the new system overall.

Peppy power play.

The Caps’ power play has been stagnant, almost predictable, for many years now – which didn’t mean it hasn’t also been potent at times, because even knowing where Alex Ovechkin is going to shoot from doesn’t mean your goalie is stopping it.

But the team’s extra-man prowess hit a snag last year, and Carbery’s hiring had all eyes focused on what the man who masterminded Toronto’s blazing power play over the last few years could do to patch up this veteran-heavy but uber-talented squad.

Well… joke’s on all of us, because Carbery doesn’t really manage the power play for the Caps – assistant coach Kirk Muller does, though, and that’s a pretty darn good hockey mind at work. The results took a little bit to start clicking (a maddening stretch of 0-for-16 to start the season before finally cashing in last week) but the roots were there from early on, and the key to this power play? The same as any successful power play: speed and movement. Quick passes, quicker decisions, more rotations – including letting Ovechkin work remote on occasion rather than sitting in his office waiting for the shot.

So far it’s been a positive change for the squad. Even before the goals started coming (the team has power-play goals in three of their last four games), there were signs that things were moving in the right direction:

Cash and carry.

Once upon a time, the Caps were known for the ol’ dump-and-chase to gain the zone; it was a regular staple of Laviolette’s time in DC. And while the move still has its place, and every team uses it, it seems as if the Caps have switched things up and are now one of the most frequent carry-in squads on the circuit.

To wit:

Obviously a system that relies on carrying the puck in rather than dumping it in is going to need some speed behind it, something the Caps have not been known for in recent years…but they’ve got some young legs in that lineup, and Carbery doesn’t seem afraid to use them (another notable change from years’ past). That will need to continue to be the case for the Caps to stick to this plan, but it’s not unwelcome after watching momentum-squelching dump-ins for too long.

At the end of the day, it’s still early and these changes could be temporary – especially depending on what happens next with the lineup, which is facing some additional, surprising questions this week. So far, though? Positive changes from the new coaching staff.