Todd Reirden came to Washington six years ago as a highly respected assistant coach. He got the opportunity to take over as head coach and was handed a championship roster, but now he finds himself out of the job after just two years. In his two years as head coach, Reirden led the team to an 89-46-16 record and two division championships. But each season was capped off with a disappointing first-round exit accompanied in slips to the team structure and discipline. This was ultimately what led to his dismissal on Sunday.
When Barry Trotz resigned as head coach of the Capitals, it was a disappointing moment for the franchise, but it did not take long for general manager Brian MacLellan to find a replacement in Reirden.
"Todd's done a great job for our organization," MacLellan said. "He's been a big part of the success we've had over the last six years. Great developer of a defenseman, a good defensive coach, did a lot of work on our power play as an assistant coach. He's done a great job for us, and consequently, we rewarded him with an opportunity to be the head coach."
The team had been grooming Reirden for this opportunity and had promoted him from assistant to associate coach. But there were issues right away.
First, a coach taking over in the wake of a championship is already put in a difficult situation. With expectations at their highest, there is no way for a coach to surpass those expectations. Reirden was immediately placed in a position where he could meet expectations or disappoint. There was not much in between.
It is also difficult for an assistant coach taking for the same team he was coaching. An assistant coach develops a different relationship with the players than a head coach. The head coach is the disciplinarian. The assistant is your friend. Developing individual relationships was with players was something Reirden was known to excel at, but it is a skill that would not help him nearly as much as a head coach.
"Sometimes it's difficult for assistant coaches to take over teams that they've been an assistant with," MacLellan said. "I think the first year he did a good job. There was some stuff that we tried to work through."
The Caps won the division in 2018-19, but were eliminated in seven games by the Carolina Hurricanes. That loss could be explained away by simple fatigue. The team made it all the way the year before and simply ran out of gas while gearing up for the next run.
It wasn't until the 2019-20 season where things really began to trend in a troubling direction.
"Probably Christmas this year, you could see the style of play started to deteriorate," MacLellan said. "Our team game wasn't as good as it had been. 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. We started to find it maybe a little bit, but I think the inconsistent play continued into the bubble and we paid the price at the end."
There was certainly a clear line to be drawn from how the team performed in the first half of the season to the second half.
From Oct. 1 to Dec. 22: 26-6-5, 3.54 goals per game, 2.76 goals against per game, 21.8-percent power play, 85.7-percent penalty kill
From Dec. 23 to March 12: 15-14-3, 3.28 goals per game, 3.44 goals against per game, 17.0-percent power play, 78.7-percent penalty kill
It was hoped that the coaches would be able to stop that trend with a lengthy pause before the postseason, but the struggles continued into the bubble in Toronto. Losing in the first round to the coach Reirden replaced in Trotz had to be an embarrassing moment, but the problems for the team ran much deeper than the optics of the loss.
"It's one of the things I've been talking about: the way we play," MacLellan said. "We couldn't find a consistent compete level throughout that whole tournament. The same things I reiterated, our structure, our team play, wasn't at the level of the other teams in the tournament. I don't think it had anything to do with our opponent, but it's just individually what was going on with our team."
The fact that the team culture was "slipping" was something MacLellan referenced multiple times on Sunday as a reason for the change and something he hopes to turn around with a new coach. That is a task well suited to an experienced coach, but something that proved too difficult a task for Reirden to handle in his first head coaching job.
When asked if hiring an experienced coach to take over a veteran-heavy team was a mistake, MacLellan acknowledged it may not have been an ideal situation.
"I think in hindsight I could probably say that, but I do think there's a familiarity there that we liked," MacLellan said. "The players were pushing for that, the same language, same system. There was a continuity that we tried to duplicate with Todd to keep the same structure going forward and I think it worked for a while and as we evolved it started to slip and it wasn't working. I guess in hindsight you could say we could've brought in a more experienced guy, but I thought that was the right decision at the right time for both the players and what we had going on in circumstances."