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The conversation that convinced Todd Reirden his hockey future was behind the bench

The conversation that convinced Todd Reirden his hockey future was behind the bench

In the fall of 2004, Todd Reirden had a conversation that would change the course of his hockey career.

Reirden’s first season with the Houston Aeros of the AHL was not going the way he had hoped. A three-inch tear in his oblique meant that not only could he not play, but he could not practice or skate. He could not do much in the way of physical activity for the next six weeks other than let the injury heal.

That’s when Houston head coach Todd McLellan called Reirden into his office.

“There was a couple different conversations where we talked about leadership and the role that I was going to have on the team and where he was going to put me in the locker room and how he was going to utilize me as an extension of the coaching staff and that's what good leaders and captains or assistant captains of the team do,” Reirden said. “At the time, I really hadn't connected the dots on where he was going with it.”

This conversation, however, was different.

McLellan asked Reirden to look at video and help out the coaching staff develop the players. What had only previously been hinted at was suddenly coming into focus for Reirden. He, a player, was being asked to take on more of a coaching role with the team.

“He was still a player,” McLellan said. “We’re probably pushing him out of a player position and into a coaching spot.”

“I guess at that point I probably should have stopped playing hockey,” Reirden said. “Once a coach tells you that, it’s maybe a good time to start thinking about being a coach.”

Things had not come easy for Reirden over the course of his playing career. For every star NHL player like an Alex Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom, there are several more player like Reirden who have to claw their way from the bottom all the way up just for a chance to reach the NHL. Once they get there, their career at the highest level is brief and over before most players may realize it.

Reirden climbed the ladder playing in the ECHL, AHL and IHL all before he finally got an opportunity to play in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. Reirden career saw him play for Edmonton, St. Louis, Atlanta and finally Phoenix.

The 2004-05 lockout came at the wrong time for Reirden who was at the tail-end of his NHL career, though he had not yet realized it. After playing in only seven games for the Phoenix Coyotes the year before, a 33-year-old Reirden signed with the Minnesota Wild and was sent to the AHL during the lockout.

While Reirden was hoping to make it back to the NHL, McLellan had planned for Reirden to stay and had pushed the organization to sign him.

“A lot of the American League teams, International League teams didn't want to have players like myself there because all they were doing was blocking development of young players,” Reirden said. ‘[McLellan] felt the value of having someone like myself around to be able to just serve as a role model in terms of character in terms of how hard I worked on the ice, off the ice.”

But it went beyond just being a role model or an on-ice leader.

Once Reirden joined the team, McLellan saw the way Reirden understood the game and the way he communicated with other players. He saw coaching potential in Reirden and decided that his true value was not on the blue line as a defenseman, but as an extension of the coaching staff.

“There are some great instinctive players that are hall of famers that might not be real good coaches because they might not be able to get their point across or have the necessary explanation technique,” McLellan said, “Where there’s some others -- and often they’re grinders that have to rely on hockey IQ and the ability to share thoughts and ideas and poke and prod -- that end up being good coaches.”

At first, Reirden helped with video. The team did not have a video coach so Reirden would help cut video and watch with the team and players. Reirden focused primarily on helping the younger players.

“You could tell he loved the game,” said former teammate, Matt Foy, who was 21 years old during his season with Reirden. “He was a leader, but he had fun with it. He was an easy guy to talk to, very easy player to talk to. Loved yapping guys, telling them different stories and stuff. He was almost like a big brother at that time to me.”

“He wasn't one of those hard veterans who would lean on you and expect you to do something that you're not capable of doing. He was really, really supportive and a friend.”

After a while, Reirden’s role on the team began to grow.

“Eventually [McLellan] started bouncing things off me,” Reirden said. “I think he also learned and grew a little bit himself because he would ask me things. What do you think I should say to the players today? How did that come across, that meeting? That's how it started with him was simple questions like that where he was getting a pulse of the room through me and trusted that what he said stayed between he and I.

“I started then to read off of him and when I saw something that maybe he didn't ask me about, I would come to him and say I think this would have been the time where you could be a little firmer on the team. Right now, the guys are uptight a little bit, maybe if you could interject something different, a different sort of meeting today that would come at things from a different angle. He took what I said to heart and it was, I think, a really good working relationship between an older veteran player and a young, up-and-coming coach.”

But eventually, injuries heal and Reirden was back on the ice. Suddenly the extension of the coaching staff had to suit up with his teammates again. Eventually, Reirden had to go back into the locker room, a sacred place among hockey teams where what is said among teammates stays among teammates and he still had to be accepted as a member of the team.

“It was something where I wanted to help [my teammates],” Reirden said, “But I also wanted to still be a player so to be able to combine that player-coach type of role, not that I was every listed as that by any means, but I think that's how some of my teammates felt about me so I wanted them to still have trust that we could still talk about things that they knew weren't going to necessarily get back to the head coach but they could still open up to me. So it was a fine line I think that I had to go through there.”

“He was more of a player than he was a coach in my eyes,” Foy said. “It's not like I'd watch what I'd say around Todd because he'd go rat me out to the coach. He was a friend. I don't think any of us looked on him as like oh, we've got to watch what we say. He was more of our teammate.”

Reirden helped the Aeros improve by 12 wins and 18 points in the 2004-05 season. The season ended in disappointment as Houston was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but more importantly for Reirden, it completely changed the trajectory of his career. Though he could not bring himself to quit playing just yet, he knew his future in hockey was behind the bench.

“Once I got over the fact of when someone's telling you that you're not maybe as good a player as you may have thought you were at that time,” Reirden said, “It was actually a great transition into helping me understand the next phase of my life and how I could use this game that's been amazing to myself and my family and allowed us so many amazing experiences and opportunities to how I could possibly continue working in the game of hockey.”

Reirden got his first official coaching job in 2007 when he was hired as an assistant coach at his alma mater Bowling Green State University. Just as he did as a player, Reirden climbed the ranks to the NHL. He started as an assistant in college, became an assistant in the AHL for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and took over as head coach when Dan Bylsma was promoted to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. In 2010, Bylsma added Reirden to his staff in the NHL and was hired by the Caps in 2014 where he helped lead the team to its first Stanley Cup in 2018 and is now the head coach.

“He understood the time that it was going to take daily, monthly, yearly to climb the ladder and he was willing to stick it out,” McLellan said. “There’s not many former players that are willing to do that. Give him credit.”

As a coach, Reirden is known for his ability to communicate with players and help each one with a specific, individual development plan. He credits the lessons he learned in Houston for getting him this far and specifically, one conversation in particular for starting his coaching career.

“Every day is a chance for me to grow and get better and get used to responsibilities as a head coach,” Reirden said. “So it's been a lot of fun and definitely a challenge, but something I love and wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world for.”

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Capitals Goal of the Year Bracket: Ovi Dangles Canes with Wilson vs Ovi Slapshot

Capitals Goal of the Year Bracket: Ovi Dangles Canes with Wilson vs Ovi Slapshot

With less than a month before training camp opens in mid-September, we are taking one last look back at the 2018-19 season as we dive into the best goals of last year. We compiled our bracket based on the cumulative rankings of our Capitals team, from reporters to producers and everyone in between, and now is your turn to help us determine the best Capitals goal of 2018-19. Below is a Slack conversation between members of the Capitals content team.

jmurph: Alright everyone, our bracket starts today with the 1 vs 16 matchup. Alex Ovechkin factoring heavily into both goals. Our #1 rated goal of the season was Ovi's incredible effort in Game 7 against the Hurricanes to set up Tom Wilson and the #16 seed is a vintage Ovi slapper off a faceoff from February 21 against the Leafs. Let's start in on Goal #1, what makes this the best goal of the season?

JJ Regan: Alex Ovechkin's entire career has been full of jaw-dropping moments. Some times we can take that for granted, but what he did in Game 7 was absolutely phenomenal and I can say, without hyperbole, that the play he made to set up Tom Wilson was one of the best plays I have seen Ovechkin make in his entire career.

Ryan Billie: How about the fact that he literally did EVERYTHING on that Wilson goal?

Rob Carlin: The Wilson goal in the playoffs was sick. Ovi was magical with the puck. And it was a big goal - at the moment. But now that’s just part of a bad memory. Give me Ovi one-timers from 40’feet directly into my veins. I go with the ovi extended hours from his office

jmurph: Wow Rob, going for the UMBC takedown on the opening day

JJ Regan: I love the Ovechkin one-timer...but how many times have we seen him score goals exactly like that? The effort to setup Wilson is an all-time highlight even if the Caps ultimately lost that game.

Ryan Billie: Yeah, that’s a surprise. I don’t think the circumstances of the game take away from the fact it was an outrageous effort. One of the best I’ve ever seen.

Rob Carlin: Yes! Sorry Wahoo Wa. Find me 5 guys who score on that shot.

jmurph: Effort aside, was the goal good?

Ryan Billie: Find me 5 dudes that make that play to Wilson.

JJ Regan: That is really the only argument. The play to setup the goal was great...but was the goal itself?

bmcnally: The goal is still sick. Credit to Wilson for realizing Ovi is playing like he's in a video game and shading away from goal a bit to give him the space to finish the pass

jmurph: Going back to the slapshot, it's crazy how we just think that it's normal to be able to do that with such ease because we've seen Ovi do it so many times

Rob Carlin: The goal was sick. I remember literally jumping out of my seat. Just don’t penalize a 40 foot slap shot just because he’s scored 400 of those.

timmcdonough: the Ovi effort immediately reminded me of the behind-the-back off-the-wall goal against Montreal.. which some people say is his best ever. Plus, nothing better than an Ovechkin rush at home where the entire crowd is standing before the puck hits the net

Ryan Billie: ^^^

bmcnally: That really was a great :"Roman Hamrlik" goal call back from 2009

Rob Carlin: TMac from the top rope! That’s a solid argument

bmcnally: The only real difference is this time he stayed on his feet and had someone with him

JJ Regan: Plus, he didn't actually score the goal, it was Wilson.

Ryan Billie: And it’s crazy, because when Ovi is open for a slap shot, you can feel the air get let out of the arena because you know what’s coming... every time he touches the puck, you just never know what’s gonna happen.

JJ Regan: There is something to be said about how incredible it is that everyone knows what Ovechkin is about to do and you just can't stop it.

jmurph: JJ are you leaning towards Rob on this one? Voting for a 16-1 upset right off the bat?

JJ Regan: Absolutely not. Just giving credit where credit is due. The Ovechkin one-timer is great, but the set up on Wilson's goal is better. An all-time highlight in a highlight career.

Rob Carlin: That’s my argument, JJ. It’s been done 400 times. Yet no one can stop it. When his stick goes up, just waiting, the excitement builds. Every time. He scored this one from 42 feet away. With no screen. Sick.

timmcdonough: I will say this about the other goal... people don’t realize how much preparation and coordination goes into scoring that fast off a faceoff. Clean win, quick pass, off-balance rocket, all in like 3.7 seconds

Ryan Billie: It’s the equivalent of a Steph Curry deep 3. We’re so used to them now they don’t seem special. But they are.

jmurph: I love me some Nic Dowd backhand sauce for 40 feet but I think the Ovi slapper got the shaft here on our list coming in at 16 against an all-timer

Rob Carlin: I’m not dying on this hill. That goal vs Carolina was all world. As Johnny said in the video, he almost threw me off the balcony when it happened. I just love Ovi one timers from way downtown.

JJ Regan: Don't bust my bracket on the first goal! Give me Ovechkin to Wilson!

bmcnally: Yeah I'm definitely going for the playmaking goal with Wilson. It's just so ridiculous someone that size can do that. But before we bury the slapper just wanted to give it the respect it deserves. It's a 16 seed that took the 1 seed deep into the second half before fading

Ryan Billie: Is Carlin pulling a Homer and backing into the bushes??

JJ Regan: That is well done

Rob Carlin: I’m basically just a lawyer in a trial who knows he’s gonna lose but wants his point on record and in the minds of the jury.

jmurph: So it seems like we are all in agreement, if this #16 Ovi slapper comes up against most goals, it might get the nod, but not on this day. Chalk it up and #1 moves on.

Ryan Billie: Not just moves on... but covers as well.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Rangers

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Rangers

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New York Rangers.

In February 2018, the Rangers did a very un-Rangers-like thing. The team sent a letter to their fans declaring the plan to rebuild the team. Now just over a year later, it did not take long for New York to make a splash in the offseason again.

The Rangers landed the prize of free agency in Artemi Panarin, added free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba, drafted Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall pick in the draft and traded for prospect defenseman Adam Fox. They also managed to avoid a restricted free agent standoff with Pavel Buchnevich.

All these moves combined put the Rangers among the most improved teams in the league. It did not take long, but New York was able to shift its team from a group of veterans not good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup to a team full of youth and potential.

The future certainly looks brighter for this team in the future than it previously had, but despite all the improvements there are still plenty of questions about the present roster.

While New York certainly got younger, star goalie Henrik Lundqvist did not.

Lundqvist had an up-and-down season last year. His first half of last season was good enough to get him to the All-Star Game. He struggled in the latter half of the season and finished with a save percentage of only .907 and a GAA of 3.07. He is not a goalie who seems to do well taking a backseat, but Alexander Georgiev played well enough to earn more playing time. All of this makes it difficult to determine just what the split between the two netminders is going to be heading into this season.

In front of the crease, the additions of Trouba and Fox look like they will give the Rangers two new top-four defenseman to plug in. That should certainly help a team that ranked 23rd in the NHL last season in goals against per game with 3.26 and could potentially take some of the pressure off Lundqvist.

Mika Zibanejad returns as the team’s top center after what was easily his best season in the NHL with career highs in goals, assists and points. He was seen as a second-line center going into last season, but certainly took advantage of the larger role offered by New York. The concerns over whether he can handle a top-line role may not be as prevalent as last year, but I still seem him as a poor man's No. 1 center.

The offense is also likely to lose some of its depth before the start of the season due to salary cap constraints.

The Rangers sit with just $1 million remaining in projected cap space and still have RFAs Brendan Lemieux and Anthony Deangelo left to sign. When looking into what the team's options are for freeing up space, you have to wonder if players like Chris Kreider and Vladislav Namestnikov -- who are both entering the final year of their contracts -- could both be moved before the summer is over.

Panarin is a great addition and undeniably a superstar, but he cannot carry a team by himself. When he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets and became the offensive focal point of the team, he was only able to lead the Blue Jackets to a single playoff series win in his two seasons there. That was a much deeper team than the Rangers appear to be if they should lose Kreider or Namestnikov.

Money decisions will continue to loom over this team even after a decision is made on those players. The cap situation was dire enough that the Rangers bought out the remaining two years of Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract. While he was underperforming, the combined buyouts of Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi and Ryan Spooner will leave New York with $5,394,444 of dead cap space in 2019-20 and nearly $7.5 million of dead cap space in 2020-21. These are not just bad contracts that can be packaged in a trade and sent away, that is dead cap space that the team is stuck with. That is a massive amount for a team that sure looks like it wants to compete for the playoffs sooner rather than later.

You still have to count the Rangers among the most improved teams this offseason, but the hill they had to climb and still must continue to climb may have been much steeper than many anticipated. There is still a lot of work left to do in Manhattan.

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