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Saints' Vilma disappointed with Tagliabue schedule

Saints' Vilma disappointed with Tagliabue schedule

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints linebacker Jon Vilma expressed disappointment on Friday that the new schedule for bounty hearings virtually prevents him from being able to personally confront his accusers.

Vilma wanted to be present for witness interviews with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, who assisted the NFL's investigation into the Saints cash-for-hits pool.

According to documents obtained this week by The Associated Press, the NFL is responsible for producing Cerullo in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, the same day the Saints play in Atlanta. Williams is scheduled to appear Friday morning.

The schedule was set by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to oversee the latest round of appeal hearings in the matter.

Vilma says he appreciates that Tagliabue is directing the NFL to produce witnesses after the league initially resisted. Yet he cannot help but wonder whether the hearing schedule was designed to discourage him from attempting to attend the hearing sessions featuring the cross-examination of Williams and Cerullo.

``The witness part is good. I think it's (unfortunate) that I'm not going to be there for Cerullo and Williams when they testify,'' Vilma said. ``These people are why I was (initially) suspended for a year, so I would love to be there. I don't know why (Tagliabue) did that, but whatever.''

Even as Tagliabue moves the process forward, a federal judge is still considering arguments by players that Tagliabue should be removed as arbitrator because he is biased in favor of the NFL. Based on the schedule laid out by Tagliabue, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan could choose to rule as early as next week.

Vilma and Saints defensive end Will Smith were among four players initially suspended for various lengths, but those punishments were vacated. Commissioner Roger Goodell re-issued the suspensions with some modifications, and when the players appealed again, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to oversee the new hearings. Vilma and Smith are still playing pending the outcomes of their appeals and have not served a game of their suspensions.

For Vilma, getting back on the field was a personal triumph, not only because of the relentless legal resistance he has put forth fighting his suspension. The suspension came down while Vilma also was rehabilitating from multiple left knee surgeries, and when the Saints signed a younger Curtis Lofton to play his old spot, some wondered whether the 30-year-old Vilma's days playing in New Orleans, if not the NFL, were effectively over.

His suspension vacated, Vilma returned after spending the first six weeks on the physically unable to prepare list - a time used to get back in shape after being banned from training camp. He said finally getting on the field has made him feel whole again.

``That's all I ever wanted, to be back on the field playing, winning games, so if we're doing that I'm always happy,'' Vilma said.

The Saints are 4-1 since Vilma's return and the defense has been playing better. Vilma did not get back his old middle linebacker position, which Lofton still holds. Vilma now plays on the weak side and is not in for every play as he was before. Still, he is wearing the captain's patch on his jersey again and teammates say his presence has helped.

``His leadership and just him being there, it has definitely allowed guys to loosen up and really trust themselves, play fast,'' safety Malcolm Jenkins said. ``It's been showing the last few games.''

Since his return, Vilma has been credited with 13 total tackles, including a sack among three tackles for losses. He also has two quarterback hurries.

``Let's face it - any defense is better with Jonathan Vilma in there,'' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. ``I go back to the topic of him and Curtis (Lofton) working together.

``They are helping each other with the calls. There are some checks that need to be made by the (middle) linebacker. Curtis does a great job on his own but to have another guy to lean on and somebody that might see one side of the football while he is looking at the other has been good.''

For now, Williams, Cerullo, Vilma, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt and NFL chief security officer Jeff Miller are the only scheduled witnesses. They are scheduled to appear in a series of hearings in Washington D.C. and New Orleans from Tuesday through Dec. 4.

Tagliabue wrote in the document that he expects to rule shortly after the last hearing, which could potentially lead to Vilma and Smith having to serve suspensions late in the regular season.

``There's always that possibility,'' Vilma said, but added, ``Once Gregg and Cerullo get on the stand and testify, we feel like there's no plausible way we could be suspended after that.''

Smith is fighting a four-game suspension. The two other players punished are former Saints: Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now on injured reserve, and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

As shocking as the news of Barry Trotz’s resignation on Monday felt, it probably shouldn’t have given that whether or not he would return to Washington after the 2017-18 season was a storyline all year long.

Trotz entered the 2017-18 season on the last year of his initial four-year deal leading to speculation over whether the team was dissatisfied with his results and ready to move on from the head coach when his contract expired. Teams typically do not allow a head coach to enter the final year of a contract so that they do not appear to the players to be a lame duck coach.

Ultimately, that turned out to not be a problem as Trotz led the organization to its first Stanley Cup in his contract year. While there was interest from both sides in an extension in the wake of winning the Cup, ultimately a new deal could not be agreed upon and now the defending champs are without a head coach.

This begs the question, could things have been different had the team worked out a new contract with Trotz before the 2017-18 season? The answer is almost certainly yes, so how did things get to the point where Trotz was allowed to go into 2017-18 without an extension?

During a press conference with the media on Monday, general manager Brian MacLellan explained the team’s reasoning in not extending Trotz in the summer of 2017.

“We were struggling at the time to get over the hump,” MacLellan said. “We couldn't get over the second round and Barry hadn't been able to coach out of the second round yet either.”

In 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, Trotz was not able to coach his team past the second round in the playoffs. In his three seasons with Washington leading up to the 2017-18 campaign, he had led the Caps to two division titles and two Presidents’ Trophies, but again could not get past the second-round hump that had plagued both him and the team.

Based on MacLellan’s comments, another early playoff exit would have likely led to the team choosing to allow Trotz's contract to expire.

“I think from the organization's perspective, some changes would've had to be made if we lost in the second round again,” MacLellan said.

But what if instead the unthinkable happened? What if the Caps forced Trotz into a “prove it” contract year and he was able to lead the team to the Stanley Cup? Didn’t they risk losing him all along?

Yes and no.

MacLellan confirmed reports on Monday that Trotz’s contract included an automatic two-year extension “at an increased rate” if he won the Cup. So while both sides were negotiating an extension, technically Trotz was already under contract through the 2019-20 season.

In the summer of 2017, MacLellan had a choice to make. At the end of the two-year championship window, he could choose to extend a head coach who had not brought the team the type of postseason success he was hoping for, he could fire a coach who had just won two consecutive division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and whose team was eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, or he could ride out the final year of Trotz’s deal and, in the off chance the team won the Stanley Cup, still rest easy in the notion that Trotz would automatically remain under contract.

MacLellan went with option C. It almost worked.

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