The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we analyze coach Todd Reirden, who was always going to have a difficult job in his first season as Capitals’ head coach given the expectations.
The question going into 2019-2020: What lessons does Reirden pull from last season, how does a year running his own bench infuse his tactics this time around and what changes, if any, does he make in player management?
There’s nowhere to go but down when you win a Stanley Cup. You can’t do any better. Reirden knew that when he took over for Barry Trotz after Washington won the title in 2018. In many ways, he kept the ship pointed in the right direction as a rookie coach. The Capitals won their fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
But the Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was a disappointment. With the Hurricanes going on to sweep Trotz and the New York Islanders in the second round there was an opportunity there for another deep playoff run and Reirden’s team wasted it.
There is plenty of good to build on. Yes, Reirden inherited a strong hand given that almost every player from a championship roster returned. But let’s not pretend everything ran smooth all year. Washington had a seven-game winless streak in January to sit on during the All-Star break.
If you’re going to withhold credit for a talented roster that in some areas can run on autopilot, you also have to acknowledge that Reirden performed the same magic Trotz did the year before: He halted an ugly losing streak that could have sent the season spinning in a dangerous direction.
The Capitals returned from the break and a bye week on Feb. 1 at 27-17-6. They were three points behind the Islanders in second place in the Metropolitan Division – though still six points from falling out of a playoff spot. Their position, if not alarming, was precarious.
But Reirden’s team recovered to go 8-4-1 before the NHL trade deadline and then caught fire with help from some shrewd additions by GM Brian MacLellan. Washington finished 13-5-1 and won the Metro again.
Reirden’s crew shook off another ragged start (8-7-3) and for the second year in a row surged in late November and December. In general he gave his top players, especially Alex Ovechkin, more minutes than in previous years under Trotz. You can’t really say that backfired since Ovechkin had a dominant playoff series against Carolina. So did Nicklas Backstrom. Those plus-30 players didn’t look spent in April even if some of their teammates did.
Maybe you can ding Reirden on the margins. Wouldn’t his fourth line have been harder to play against with Dmitrij Jaskin in the lineup? Did he bail on Andre Burakovsky too quickly? Did he not bail on Chandler Stephenson soon enough?
But those weren’t season-changing decisions. Burakovsky wasn’t producing until the trade deadline passed and he relaxed a little, Stephenson’s penalty killing was necessary. Jaskin being glued to the bench was somewhat baffling giving that his underlying possession numbers were always strong, but he also produced zero offensively.
In the end, assuming his players don’t fall off a cliff this season, Reirden will have a few obvious areas to address. There was a strain of thought around the NHL last spring that the Capitals were too wedded to what worked for them during the regular season and never really adjusted to how the Hurricanes were determined to play.
That’s an age-old conundrum in the playoffs, of course. Change too much and you’ll be accused of panicking. But it was hard to ignore how badly Washington was outplayed on the road against the Hurricanes. And Carolina had a rookie head coach itself in long-time NHLer Rod Brind’Amour, who famously said during the series that coaching was “overrated.” It came down to a coin toss in overtime of Game 7 and the Capitals lost. Reirden took some heat for it.
Washington’s coaching staff was an odd mix, but it doesn’t appear there will be any changes there. Reid Cashman, just 35 and an assistant at AHL Hershey the two years before, was in his first season as an NHL coach, too, and – if we’re being honest – had a rough gig dealing with veteran blueliners like John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. There’s not much an inexperienced coach can tell players like that.
Scott Arniel gave Reirden an assistant with NHL head coaching experience. That proved helpful. Goalie coach Scott Murray’s role didn’t change much given that Mitch Korn had already scaled back his duties in previous years before leaving for New York with Trotz. Murray and Braden Holtby appeared to have a strong working relationship. Blaine Forsythe has been on staff for over a decade and runs the power play, which did slip some to 12thin the NHL.
Reirden had to learn how to manage those coaches, blending a staff and finding the right way to delegate and trust. It’s a balance most rookie head coaches find tricky. A second year together should theoretically run more smoothly with roles defined and respected. If that doesn’t happen, it will spell trouble.
At times it seemed like Reirden and MacLellan weren’t always on the same page. Jaskin was a fourth-liner picked up on waivers before the season, but was basically iced after December. Maybe that's not such a big deal. But Reirden didn’t quite seem to know what to do with defenseman Nick Jensen, either, after he was acquired from Detroit in a trade to bolster the blueline.
Jensen never looked comfortable playing primarily on the left side once Michal Kempny was lost for the season with a torn hamstring. That’s a difficult position for any player on a new team in a pressure situation, but Jensen immediately signed a four-year contract extension after the trade so they’ll have to figure it out. Expect him to get heavy minutes as the replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pairing.
There is probably much more behind the scenes that we don’t know – from interactions with individual players, who all have healthy egos of their own, to disagreements over strategy and tactics. NHL teams do a pretty good job of hiding those fissures, especially when they’re winning, but a coach has to figure out that balance and intuitively know when to scrap his own plan.
In the end, much of this is nitpicking. The Capitals won plenty in Reirden’s first year, they made the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years, they took the division again and they blew a series they should have won. That happened under Trotz, too.
But the goal this year is clear: Keep the championship window open and make a deeper playoff run. No one knows when a Stanley Cup push will happen, but Washington better be in the mix. Do that and Reirden’s reputation will grow from coaching a roster that’s changed a lot since Trotz left last summer. Fall short and doubts will begin creeping in. If there’s any lesson that Reirden learned in his first season as a head coach it was that one.
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