Brian MacLellan evaluates Spencer Carbery’s first year as Capitals’ head coach

Spencer Carbery was tasked with a lot when he took the reins of the Washington Capitals before the 2023-24 NHL season. The Capitals were coming off their worst full, 82-game season in 16 years under Peter Laviolette and their aging core was another year older.

Despite adversity, Year 1 under Spencer Carbery was major success for  Capitals

Carbery, the youngest head coach in the league, faced a never-ending sea of adversity in his first season behind the bench but still led Washington to an improbable playoff appearance secured on the final day of their regular season. The Capitals, embodying their coach’s never-say-die attitude, grinded their way into the postseason despite having the worst goal differential, minus-37, of any team to qualify in the salary cap era.

“He brought the intensity,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said last Tuesday. “He turned it up on a nightly basis. Our playoffs started a while ago. The intensity, the compete. And then you lose a game and it’s so disappointing for whatever reason. I think there’s a lot of energy that goes out and is put into that, to get us back to the next level the next night.

“Our schedule, down the stretch, was every second night for five, six weeks. It was a grind and it was just set up that way. We had an easy schedule at the beginning with a lot of days off and then at the end, we paid the price. Then we got through it. I think it’s intense, it’s competitive.”

Capitals’ players struggled to adapt to Carbery’s new system early in the season. Washington could not score enough to play the high-tempo, fast-paced style that Carbery implemented throughout Training Camp and the preseason.

On top of that, Alex Ovechkin managed just eight goals through his first 43 games, Nicklas Backstrom stepped away from the team, TJ Oshie missed 30 games due to injury, and Evgeny Kuznetsov struggled before entering NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance.

With the star players unable to carry the team, Carbery played a more rigid, defensive system to keep his team in the playoff race. He also consistently worked in the organization’s young talent, trying to develop them into being more comfortable in larger roles.

“I thought he was excellent,” MacLellan said. “He’s a good young coach, he has a good mind for the game, brings energy every day, does a good job with addressing issues that come up during the year with players. Constantly trying to make players better. I think he has a really good skillset. I think that’s his first year, he’s only going to get better from here on out.”

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Despite sharing his glowing praise for Carbery, MacLellan did show some hesitation to laud the rookie bench boss’ staff as a whole. The Capitals had some massive struggles with their special teams during the year, including a month-long stretch without a power play goal.

Special teams were the ultimate difference in the playoffs against the New York Rangers. Washington converted just twice on 17 power-play opportunities and gave up two shorthanded goals to the Rangers. On the penalty kill, they allowed six goals on 16 New York chances, good for the third-worst unit in the postseason.

“I think one thing we’re gonna have to take a look at our specialty teams, both,” MacLellan said. “Find some answers, whether it’s personnel or trying to make some improvements there.”

The Capitals also had just a 44.5 percent win rate in the faceoff circle during the playoffs, slightly worse than their 46.7 percent rate during the regular season which was fifth-worst in the league. Dylan Strome was the only center on the team to finish the season with a faceoff win rate of over 50 percent.

Washington previously hired former NHL defensive specialist Michael Peca in 2021 as a player development coach focused on helping players get better in the dot. MacLellan expressed an interest in finding someone new for that job as the Capitals never replaced Peca when he left for an assistant coaching position within the Buffalo Sabres organization. Peca is now behind the bench next to Laviolette with the Rangers.

“We’ve always tried to look for a guy that can come in and do that and we continue to,” MacLellan said. “It’s hard to find a guy that has that skill set.”

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