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20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

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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4 things to know for Caps-Flames: Back in the Saddle(dome)

4 things to know for Caps-Flames: Back in the Saddle(dome)

The Capitals (6-2-2) started off the road trip with a win on Sunday in Chicago. Now they begin the three-game tour through western Canada starting with the Calgary Flames (5-4-1). You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live kicking things off at 8 p.m. before Caps Pregame Live begins at 8:30 p.m. to bring you up to the 9 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington afterward for Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here are 4 things to know for Tuesday’s game.

Kempny is back on the top pair

Based on the lines the team used in Monday’s practice, Michal Kempny will return to his normal spot on the top defensive pairing alongside John Carlson.

The defense has stabilized quite a bit since Kempny has returned, though he started both games he has played on the third pair. This move would suggest that he has felt fine since returning and there are no lingering concerns over his hamstring.

Kempny’s return not only stabilizes the top defensive pair, but the trickle-down effect boosts the entire defense. Jonas Siegenthaler has been playing on the top pair in Kempny's absence. He has done as well as could be hoped for a young player in just his second NHL season, but moving him to the third pair takes some of the pressure off the young blueliner. Plus, putting him on the third pair with Radko Gudas makes for a pretty darn good bottom-pair.

NHL points leader John Carlson

Carlson enters Tuesday’s game leading the NHL in points with 18. In 10 games he has been held without a point only once. He has six multi-point games and a seven-game point streak.

Carlson’s start to the season puts him in pretty elite company as only two other defensemen have managed 18 or more points in their first 10 games. They are Paul Coffey and Bobby Orr.

You don’t get more elite than that.

Calgary has not lost in regulation at home

In four games at the Saddledome this season, Calgary is 3-0-1. The lone loss came against the Los Angeles Kings thanks to Drew Doughty’s overtime winner. In their three wins, the Flames have outscored opponents 11-2.

The Caps have been road warriors so far this season with a 4-1-0 record away from home. In addition, Alex Ovechkin has scored five of his six goals this season on the road. Washington also has beaten the Flames seven of the last 10 games these two teams have played in Calgary.

A special teams battle

No team in the NHL has been called for more minor penalties this season than Calgary which has 46 already. Their 122 PIMs ranks second only to Vegas’ 125.

Washington is currently clicking at 27.0-percent on the power play, good for 9th in the NHL. The Flames, however, rank 5th on the penalty kill at 87.5-percent.

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The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The Capitals are 10 games into the 2019-20 season. For the most part, things have gone well. The team is 6-2-2 and sits atop the Metropolitan Division. John Carlson leads the entire NHL with 18 points which puts him in some pretty elite company. Ilya Samsonov looks as good as advertised while Braden Holtby looks like his old self after a brief reset. Alex Ovechkin has six goals already and T.J. Oshie leads the team with seven. Plus, both special teams units look improved.

That’s a pretty solid start.

But there remain two important questions that still need answers.

Who should play on the right on the second defensive pair?

Michal Kempny finally returned after missing the first eight games of the season. He started the last two on the third pair, but is working his way back up to the top pairing. Once he gets there, the defense will finally be at full strength.

That gives Washington a pretty solid top three of Kempny and Carlson, plus Dmitry Orlov. But who should play on the right with Orlov?

Jensen had the first crack at it to start the season, but after some up-and-down play, Radko Gudas was bumped up for a few games. Since Kempny returned, Gudas moved back down to third to play with him and Jensen moved back with Orlov.

So far Gudas has been as good as advertised, but playing well on the third pair does not necessarily mean he should be on the second.

Jensen was one of Detroit’s top defensemen when he was acquired by the Caps. The team is still waiting for that player to emerge. It has been a tough transition for him to Washington's system and, while he has shown flashes of strong play, he remains largely inconsistent. His Corsi-For percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-worst on the team at 46.82-percent. He is one of only three Caps below 50-percent with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tyler Lewington being the other two.

The issue for the Caps may be that they have two high-quality third pair right defensemen in Jensen and Gudas and only one top-four right defenseman in Carlson which leaves a hole on that second pair.

When it comes to the defense, we should reserve all judgment until Kempny is back to playing on the top-pair full-time so we can see this defense at full strength. Until then, however, the second pair remains a question mark.

Can the Caps get enough production from the third line?

There wasn’t much offense to speak of from the Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik trio and it didn’t take Todd Reirden long to split them up. Hagelin is the Swiss Army knife of the Caps’ offense, but his offensive production is limited. Panik meanwhile has had a tough start to his Caps’ tenure with zero points and is on long-term injured reserve.

As always, the top six for this team remains lethal and the additions of Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway to the fourth line have been home runs. The third line is the only one that remains a question and it may need a boost from a player like Jakub Vrana, who has been playing there the last few games with Eller and Hathaway, to help spark some production. Ultimately, however, you would like to see Vrana back in the top six and Hathaway back on the fourth. Hagelin, Eller and Panik are the best fit for the third, but if they can’t produce together it may mean weakening the top six or the fourth line by moving players around to find a combination that produces on that third line.

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