Perspective | ‘Very, very poised’: How Spencer Carbery won over the Caps of all ages

As it pertains to work-life balance, Spencer Carbery has a simple policy: His laptop remains at the Washington Capitals practice facility in Arlington. If he brought it home, he would certainly watch video of the Caps team he coaches, searching for solutions. That, of course, would suck time away from wife, Casey, and his kids, son Hudson, who’s about to turn 12, and daughter Vivian, 10. A 42-year-old obsessed with hockey has to be present when it’s time to be present.

“When I’m home, I’m Dad and husband,” Carbery said, and he smiled somewhat mischievously. “But you can never truly shut it down. Like, there’s always something in the back …”

And he put his hand to the rear or his shiny bald dome, fidgeting with it, indicating activity. Hockey eats at him. It’s buried in his brain. The questions flow. What if we tried this on the power play? What if we tried something different as a breakout?

Eventually, in the middle of the night, his phone comes out. He’s typing into the Notes app.

“I’ve got to get better at sleeping,” Carbery said.

No laptop at home? There’s only one solution: Head into the office.

What time are we talking?

“It’s usually 3-something,” he said.

Headed into the first Stanley Cup playoffs of his head coaching career, this is not the time to learn new sleep patterns. There are so many unlikely and remarkable elements to this Capitals postseason appearance, from injury to attrition to an unexpected style of play, that it’s easy to forget one surprising part: The person who held the Caps together when they could have been falling apart is a rookie head coach with an uncanny sense of what to say and when, who thought he would be coaching one kind of team but adjusted when his personnel demanded it.

“Very, very poised,” said veteran T.J. Oshie, only five years Carbery’s junior. “The message that he sends to the team, he’s very good at timing with that message and what it needs to be. He’s done a phenomenal job for us in here. Definitely came in not looking like a first-year head coach.”

Carbery is the seventh head coach to lead the Capitals into the playoffs in the Alex Ovechkin era. Unlike his predecessor — veteran Peter Laviolette, who coached in Washington for three years and will now face the Caps as the head coach of the opposing New York Rangers — there was no book on how his team would play or how he would handle the unpredictable situations that defined this Capitals season.

What the Caps discovered — from the front office to the locker room — is that Carbery relentlessly studies and tinkers with the X’s and O’s and will make sure, as forward Dylan Strome said, “no stone goes left unturned.” But more importantly, even as the youngest coach in these playoffs, Carbery has a touch for who to push. And when. And how hard.

“I think he’s got an emotional maturity that he reads where individuals and the team are at, and he’s got a message that coincides with that,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “So it always makes sense to the players, which I think is the key.

“Sometimes coaches feel a certain way but don’t read the room, and it’s like: Maybe that’s not the time to deliver that message. His strength is, I think, he has that whole feel for reading it. It’s pretty impressive for a young guy.”

Which doesn’t mean his first season has been a straight line to success. Carbery figures he has laid out 50 different combinations of forward lines over the course of 82 games. He entered the season with veterans Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom as his top two centers. Eight games in, Backstrom stepped away from the sport because his injured hip proved too cumbersome; Kuznetsov was placed on waivers and eventually traded after just more than half a season in which he proved more hindrance than help.

Throw in a spate of injuries, the suspension of forward Tom Wilson for six games during an imperative late-season stretch, Ovechkin’s goal drought for a good three months — eight in the first 43 games — and Carbery’s path to this point was as much lined with duct tape and super glue as it was with coaching philosophy and bedrock tenets. These Capitals don’t play with Carbery’s preferred pace, because maybe 20 games in, it was clear they couldn’t.

So he and his staff changed their style. Those circumstances can cost sleep. They can also foster growth.

“I’m very thankful, because there’s two things,” Carbery said. “One is it’s a great, great group. To see this team achieve and get to the playoffs, it’s just … ” and his eyes widened.

“But also for myself, even though, yeah, it’s hard, and this year has been taxing and difficult, but I’m a better coach for it. You have to be appreciative of going through a lot of this adversity, because it makes me a better coach.”

It says here, though, that the Caps are better because Carbery is their coach. That’s not just a statement about 2023-24 and its unique circumstances, which should garner him NHL coach of the year votes. It’s an assessment of the position of the franchise going forward.

At some point, Ovechkin won’t be setting up shop at the left circle on the power play, John Carlson won’t be playing 25 minutes a night on the blue line, Oshie’s back will give out, and their numbers will be in the rafters rather than on the ice. Carbery will serve as the bridge from one Caps era to the next.

So getting this shot in the playoffs — even as an in-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth eighth seed against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers — is important for so many young players who will be part of the lineup in future years, not to mention their coach. Development, though, was probably the area with which the Caps were most comfortable when they hired Carbery last spring. He had been the head coach of their top minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., before leaving for an assistant’s job in Toronto. He knows how to coach kids.

The important connection Carbery has made, then, is with Washington’s aging core. Ovechkin, Carlson and Oshie have seen everything the league has to offer. It’d be easy for them to roll their eyes at a first-year guy barely older than them pushing them to do things his way.

They haven’t. That’s at least in part because he involves them in nearly everything.

“At certain points in the season, you have to find out what T.J. Oshie, for example, is seeing right now and where we are as a team,” Carbery said. “I can ask them about where are some areas that you think that we can get better and where we’re falling short, and then I can address that.

“So those guys have been instrumental, because they’re at the forefront of driving the car. I can say it and show it, but they reinforce it in the locker room, and they expect to win. That’s a credit to them.”

But it’s a credit to Carbery, too. Players, particularly veteran players, can smell a fraud. Maybe the most impressive aspect of Carbery’s season is that he established credibility with players who could have been set in their ways.

“I think the strength is he relates to the older guys, too,” MacLellan said. “They buy in. Coaches, I think, usually lean younger or older. It probably has to do with your age more than anything as you relate to different groups. But I think my praise of him would be he’s handled the older guys very well, considering he’s a first-year coach.”

It’s April. The playoffs are upon us. By this point, Spencer Carbery is no longer a first-year coach. He has 82 games behind him, and however many more ahead. And the Capitals coaching situation — with an energetic, positive person who has his philosophies but is smart enough to adjust — feels as stable as it has since Ovechkin entered the league all those years, and all those coaches, ago.

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