Todd Reirden played a large role in the Capitals' run to the Stanley Cup, coaching up the team's defensemen under head coach Barry Trotz. When Trotz resigned in 2018, it did not take long for general manager Brian MacLellan to tab Reirden as his replacement. And yet, despite all the confidence in him, the 2020 postseason shook the organization to the point that a coaching move was necessary. As a result, Reirden's time behind the bench in Washington is now done and the Peter Laviolette era is about to begin.
Reirden's first opportunity to be an NHL head coach was both a great one and an extremely difficult one. By taking over for the defending Stanley Cup champions, Reirden was in a much better position than most other new head coaches. At the same time, he was in a no-win situation. The absolute best he could do was match what Trotz did in 2018, but he couldn't beat him. Two up-and-down regular seasons also didn't help.
It soon became clear that coaching was a problem towards the start of 2020 when the team was locked in a tailspin it could not recover from. From Oct. 2, 2019 to Dec. 22, Washington was the best team in hockey with a 26-6-5 record, five points clear of second-place St. Louis. From Dec. 23 on, however, it was another story as the Caps managed only a 15-14-3 record in 32 games.
"Our team game wasn't as good as it had been," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "It was going in the wrong direction. Our compete level was in and out, so we had some inconsistencies and I think it just built from there."
Thirty-two games is well past the point that you could call this a slump. It was so bad that the only thing that saved Washington from losing the division after building such an enormous lead was the regular season getting paused by COVID-19.
But, as bad as the second half of the season had been for Washington, it was about to get worse.
Two years is not much time to evaluate a head coach. Typically general managers like to give their coaches more time, but Washington's performance in the 2020 postseason could not be ignored. The Caps, a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, were obliterated in just five games by the New York Islanders coached by Trotz.
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For five games, the Caps had no control in front of the net in either end of the ice. They had no discipline. They were dominated at 5-on-5. And Washington, and more specifically coaching, had no answer.
This was most glaring after the Caps' lone win in the series in Game 4. After losing three straight, Washington avoided elimination with a Game 4 win, but not because of any adjustments the team had made.
"We didn’t like how we played Game 1 and 2, and Game 3 we didn’t deserve that game, but there were things that showed we were headed in the right direction," Reirden said. "But the emphasis for me was that structure, we had execution and then ultimately was the work ethic."
Structure? Execution? Work ethic? I'm sorry, that's not a plan for how to get back in a series. You need a better plan than that and it was clear Washington had no plan at that point.
The Caps were shutout in Game 5 and lost the series. A change was needed and one was made on Aug. 23 when Reirden was relieved of his duties.
"We have higher expectations for our team, and we felt a fresh approach in leadership was necessary," said MacLellan. "We would like to thank Todd for all of his hard work and efforts with our organization. Todd has been a big part of our team for more than half a decade, including our Stanley Cup run in 2018, and we wish him and his family all the best moving forward."
To replace Reirden, the Caps went out and got the best coach on the market, Laviolette.
"This is an important day for our organization as we officially name Peter Laviolette as our head coach," MacLellan said in September. "We feel very fortunate to be able to hire someone of Peter’s caliber and to have him available at a time of need for our organization."
Washington is the fifth team Laviolette has coached. Previously, he was the head coach of the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators. He has led three of those four teams to the Stanley Cup Final and won the Cup with Carolina in 2006.
Now as he comes to Washington, MacLellan laid out exactly what he hopes to see from the new head coach.
"I think we had an underperformance from a couple guys in the last two playoff series and team structure," MacLellan said. "I think consistent compete level from some guys would help our goal moving forward and I think those buttons do need to be pushed. We need to hold guys accountable when they don’t perform up to standards. I think it is an important part and I think just the whole inconsistent team effort. The play of units of five, not just individually would help that situation tremendously.”
But the clock is ticking already for Laviolette. Washington is an aging team whose championship window is quickly closing. More than anything else, Laviolette's directive is to win and win fast because you never know when that window will close completely.
"I think that's what drives you as a coach or an organization or a player, is to get all the way to the end and play for the Cup and put your hands on it," Laviolette said. "To me, I see a team that's had success recently, regular season success, some postseason success and for me that's the great opportunity."