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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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Dillon fits right in, Carlson hits a milestone and is it problem solved for Brian MacLellan?

Dillon fits right in, Carlson hits a milestone and is it problem solved for Brian MacLellan?

Boy did they need that. The Capitals snapped a four-game losing streak on Sunday with a 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins to reclaim first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

He's kind of a big Dill

This was Brenden Dillon's best game thus far with the Capitals and it's not just because of his fight with Evgeni Malkin, though that helped. He played less than 14 minutes in Saturday's game against New Jersey and did not play at all on the penalty kill. On Sunday, he played 20:38 and 3:34 on the penalty kill. He was very physical, played the body well. There was one goal where he was caught too high, but that was because he joined the offensive rush which defensemen are allowed to do in the team's system. That goal wasn't on him, the team was just caught on the counter-attack with him in the offensive zone.

"I thought he had a really strong game," coach Todd Reirden said. "We've been kind of easing him into it, his minutes weren't as high as we would've liked yesterday and then today I thought it was really noticeable, his play. Just settles things down and obviously penalty kill, using him more in that situation today. You could see his experience and then, when he has a chance to play against the other team's top players, he's not going to be fun to play against."

Dillon is a very good defensive player with a lot of snarl to his game. This was the best reflection of what the Caps really got when they acquired him.

Kempny-Gudas wasn't a disaster

Michal Kempny and Radko Gudas were paired together in Thursday's game against the Montreal Canadiens and there is no way to sugarcoat it: They were awful together. Surprisingly, the pair was reunited for this game and it actually wasn't the disaster I anticipated it to be. At 5-on-5 play, Kempny and Gudas had a 54.55 Corsi-For percentage. Well, they must have played sheltered minutes, right? They actually didn't. They had zero on-the-fly offensive zone starts and only 16.67-percent offensive zone faceoff starts. They were being played primarily in defensive situations.

Perhaps, in a way, that actually was sheltered for them considering they have been responsible for several of the breakaway chances the team has given up the past few games. Maybe the best way to shelter Kempny-Gudas is to keep them out of a position in which the offense can get behind them.

Wearing down the Penguins?

The Caps have outscored Pittsburgh 6-2 in the third period this season. Clearly Washington is trying to wear down the Penguins physically and that seems to be working in the third, though Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan isn't buying it.

When asked if he was concerned that the Caps were physically wearing down his team, Sullivan responded bluntly, "No."

Problem solved?

Had Washington gotten crushed this game, I don't see how Brian MacLellan could have justified standing pat on Monday. Clearly a change would have been needed. It's just one game, but did Sunday's win change MacLellan's approach to the trade deadline?

Let's consider what we saw. The Caps had almost zero offensive net-front presence on Saturday. Tom Wilson got a power play goal from providing maybe the only screen of the entire day. That was very different on Sunday where the goals by Carl Hagelin and T.J. Oshie came on plays the team seemed incapable of making on Saturday.

Defensively, while the team may have given up three goals, this was actually one of the better defensive performances we have seen from the Caps in quite some time. We did not see the type of egregious mistakes and turnovers that have been killing them of late.

So of the issues the team has been dealing with of late, Sunday's game showed they are indeed correctable. In that sense, perhaps MacLellan won't feel compelled to make any further moves or, if he does, just some minor tweaks to the roster.

The question MacLellan has to ask himself is whether Sunday's win is the beginning of the turnaround or if it was just the team getting up for a big game and a big opponent? Sunday's win will mean nothing if they revert back to how they have been playing lately. How much will MacLellan regret not trying to do something on Monday if the Caps walk away with one point against Winnipeg and Minnesota over the next three games?

Turning point

With the way things have gone for Washington of late, it had every reason to collapse after Pittsburgh took a 2-1 lead in just 26 seconds in the second period. The first two periods were not good and the Penguins were in complete control. But a different team took the ice in the third period and took back the game with three goals. Tom Wilson scored less than two minutes into the third on a 4-on-4 breakaway opportunity. The goal was a great play by both Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom.

Wilson first forced the neutral zone turnover by defenseman Marcus Pettersson. Backstrom hit the loose puck up to Wilson and then quickly turned his body into the path of Pettersson, holding him up slightly to allow Wilson to get the breakaway. Wilson did the rest, deftly deking Murray and tucking the puck into the back of the net.

Play of the game

It's not really a play, but Dillon beat the snot out of Malkin.

And here's a bonus Caps fans will enjoy.

Stat of the game

With one assist, John Carlson passed Calle Johnasson for the most points by a defenseman in franchise history with 475. Carlson tied that mark on Saturday and was honored earlier in the game with a video tribute.

"Yeah, it's not my favorite thing," he said of the tribute, which is very in-tune with his personality.

Quote of the game

It didn't take long for Dillon to adjust to the Caps-Penguins rivalry.

"I like to play hard, especially against those top-end guys. Malkin's a heck of a player. He plays a physical game, too, sometimes. With these rivalry-type games, tempers run high and it was great."

Fan predictions

Just had to include this one because I love that it came from "Cautiously Optimistic."

The defense was much more sound in this game, though Sidney Crosby got a short breakaway goal in the second.

Could be, but so far so good!

Maryland was leading at the time of writing.  I feel your pain. I have only one kid and sleep is limited. Mine broke my toe though.

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Capitals reclaim first place with cathartic win over Penguins

Capitals reclaim first place with cathartic win over Penguins

WASHINGTON -- It has been a tough run for the Capitals of late, but for one day at least all of that was cast aside in a cathartic 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. The win vaults Washington back into first place in the Metropolitan Division and, for the moment, silences all the doubt that has surrounded Washington over the team's recent skid.

Here is how the Caps won.

Vrana's speed

Jakub Vrana gave Washington the 1-0 lead with a tremendous individual effort. On a defensive zone draw, Vrana picked up the puck and turned on the jets. Defenseman Marcus Pettersson wasn't ready for him and Vrana was able to turn the corner to create his own breakaway. Goalie Matt Murray made the initial save, but Pettersson slid in a desperate sweep attempt. He slid into the puck and knocked it into his own net shortly before knocking the net off its moorings.

After a quick review, the play was confirmed as a goal for Washington.

Improved defense

Overall this was one of the better defensive games the Caps have played in a while and it's a good thing because the offense took an extended nap in the first period and into the second.

After Vrana gave Washington the 1-0 lead, the Caps were outshooting Pittsburgh 5-1. They would then go 16:57 before getting another shot on goal, from 7:27 into the first period to 4:24 into the second.

Through two periods, Washington had only 10 shots on goal. And for anyone thinking, well, they had some chances, they really didn't. In addition to having only 10 shots on goal, they also had only 28 total shot attempts.

Heck, the Caps had more hits (31) through two periods than shot attempts.

That allowed Pittsburgh's offense plenty of opportunity to get back into the game, which it did. A bad misplay by Radko Gudas left Patric Hornqvist wide open in front of the net for Pittsburgh's first goal. Brenden Dillon joined the offensive rush on the next shift and the Caps could not recover on the counter-attack by Sidney Crosby, who was able to get in behind the defense and score just 26 seconds after Hornqvist.

Allowing two goals in 26 seconds is bad, but we did not see nearly as many of the egregious turnovers that have been a trademark for Washington throughout its recent cold spell. Had the team that played Saturday's game in New Jersey or Thursday's game against Montreal showed up to this one, Pittsburgh would have torn it to pieces and this one would have been a blowout before the Caps finally got shot No. 6 on the board.

You also have to give credit to Holtby who put up another strong performance in net as he turned aside 33 of the 36 shots he faced on the day.

The third period response

With the way things have gone for Washington of late, it had every reason to collapse after Pittsburgh took a 2-1 lead in just 26 seconds. The first two periods were not good and the Penguins were in complete control.

But a different team took the ice in the third period and took back the game with three goals. The Capitals even responded after Evgeni Malkin made a dazzling play to tie the game at 3.

The Wilson-Backstrom connection

Tom Wilson scored less than two minutes into the third period on a 4-on-4 breakaway opportunity. The goal was a great play by both Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom.

Wilson first forced the neutral zone turnover by Pettersson. Backstrom hit the loose puck up to Wilson and then quickly turned his body into the path of Pettersson, holding him up slightly to allow Wilson to get the breakaway. Wilson then did the rest, deftly deking Murray and tucking the puck into the back of the net.

A relentless shift by the third line

Washington restored its lead just over three minutes after Wilson's tying goal as Carl Hagelin scored against his former team. 

The third line battled in the offensive zone to keep control of the puck. Richard Panik won it back from Pittsburgh behind the goal line then kicked it out to John Carlson. Carlson fired from the blue line and Hagelin tried to deflect it but missed. His stick was high, however, and likely affected the vision of Murray who missed what should have been an easy glove save. Instead, Lars Eller got to the loose puck and crashed the net. Murray stopped him, but Eller cleared some room for Hagelin who finally poked it past Murray.

Hagelin would add an empty-netter for his second goal of the game.

Another response

You have to tip your cap to Malkin for his game-tying goal. He took the puck in the neutral zone, put it between the legs of Carlson, then shot it past Holtby for the fantastic goal.

Instead of boosting the Penguins, however, it was the Caps who responded less than two minutes later. Oshie took the puck from behind the goal line and would not be denied. He fired a backhand shot on Murray, then found the rebound through traffic and managed to chip it in for the game-winner.

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