As the NHL’s regular season ended, the coaching carousel opened up. Just like in every other recent instance in every sport, trendy names pop up. Some latch on, some don’t. In college football, it was Brent Venables for a while. In the NFL, Eric Bieniemy will be that guy until he’s a head coach. And in the NHL this season, it was Spencer Carbery. And he ended up with a team that was one of the league’s trendiest for more than a decade before this season’s slip out of the playoffs, the Washington Capitals. The nation’s capital is welcomed back immediately to non-Alex Ovechkin relevancy.
Caps had a rough go this season
The Capitals were banged up for all of 2022-23, with the six players remaining from the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup victory suiting up together four times. Out of 82, 4.8 percent. Awful. You get the idea. To have an organization’s identity be dimmed for that much of a season jumps the shark, and Washington was still in playoff contention until the final two weeks of the season. That shouldn’t be celebrated, but it should be understood that it’s not exactly a rebuild at Capital One Arena. The team needs to get faster, younger, and grittier. Not that ugly Flyers mascot, but more willing to do the grunt work that doesn’t appear on the stat sheet that the team thrived at five years ago. Younger and faster includes behind the bench, with Carbery being 17 years the junior of his predecessor Peter Laviolette.
Not the name I expected, but that’s OK
Earlier this month, I wrote about how Jeff Halpern needed to be the team’s next head coach, a prediction mixed with hope that didn’t come to fruition. And as a D.C.-area native, I’m completely alright with being wrong with my crystal ball. Namely, because Carbery was a name I rejected from the jump. Why would the NHL’s most-valued name to be the next to lead an organization that has the pick of the litter come to Washington, with playoff teams that just let go of their coach, like the Rangers? Even with Carbery’s history with both of Washington’s minor league affiliates — as the head coach of the AHL’s Hershey Bears, and as a player and assistant coach for the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays — returning home isn’t exactly easy or the right move. Wayne Gretzky should never coach the Oilers. Josh Heupel is making a great legacy at Tennessee.
Carbery’s knowledge of the organization is the best maraschino cherry on top ever. He’s familiar with the ins and outs of the American Hockey League level, which will be key in developing the next generation of Capitals. Of the six Washington players at the core of the team who won the Stanley Cup, the youngest is Tom Wilson, who turned 29 in March. The most notable duo of those six have a combined age of 72 — Ovechkin and Backstrom. Two future Hall of Famers that it’ll be critical for Carbery to get the most of. Ovechkin’s relationship with Carbery, in particular, will be key, as his chase of Gretzky’s goal-scoring record will be the team’s biggest storyline, minus a deep playoff run, until Washington’s captain retires. Ovie is 72 goals behind Gretzky (894 to 822), and every puck that crosses the goal line matters more than anyone else in the league.
This is the simple, can’t-miss hire Washington needed and didn’t mess up, going logic over emotion with the hire. As nice as it would’ve been to have Halpern lead the team, and Carbery could throw a bunch of money at him to make him an assistant coach, one of the two has been a head coach before. And it’s not Halpern. Washington hasn’t won a playoff series since its five-game Stanley Cup victory over Vegas in 2018. Now, that streak looks closer to ending with Carbery’s hire. And the rest of the league’s franchises with a vacancy at the helm will have to settle for their second choice.