Todd Reirden

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Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Since taking over as the head coach of the Washington Capitals, Todd Reirden has had to deal with Tom Wilson getting suspended, a number of injuries and a team-wide Stanley Cup hangover.

So how would he describe the start to his first season as an NHL coach?

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview.

Reirden’s playing career came to an end in Europe in 2007, but his coaching career really began in 2004 while he was a player with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. Out with an injury, head coach Todd McLellan encouraged Reirden to take more of a coaching role with the team. It didn’t take long for Reirden to realize his real future in the game was as a coach and not as a player.

Reirden climbed the ranks as a coach from college, to the AHL and finally to the NHL. He spent the last eight seasons in the NHL behind the bench as an assistant and associate coach before finally getting the opportunity to become a head coach.

“Something when you start coaching just as I used to think about as a player, was the ultimate was to be able to play at the highest level,” Reirden said. “I was able to do that as a player and now able to see that dream come true as a coach. First things first is it's been amazing from that standpoint.”

The history of the NHL – and all professional sports for that matter – is full of assistant coaches who just could not make the transition from assistant to head coach. There is no doubt Reirden knows what he’s doing when it comes to the development of players and on-ice strategy. The last few years working with the Caps as an assistant and then associate coach have shown us that.

But being a head coach is about more than just what happens on the ice. That’s the part that first-year head coaches seem to struggle with initially.

“How everything works behind the scenes in terms of organizationally, dealing with the salary cap and sending down players, keeping them on board and the constant contact with Hershey,” Reirden said. “You spend a lot of time on those type of things. It's been a little bit of a transition too I would say with two new staff members in terms of how I'm delegating responsibility and empowering them in their particular areas. That's probably been the things that have been the most different for me.

“The hockey part, the coaching part, talking to the players in between periods, the media, that stuff has all gone really smoothly,” Reirden said. “No real transition there. But I'd say more the stuff behind the scenes is the stuff that's been a little bit different than expected.”

Reirden is certainly getting a crash course on roster construction given the recent spate of injuries and recalls. That has unquestionably affected the play of the team and is a major reason why the Caps have looked so inconsistent to start the season. It is not how Reirden would have scripted his first season to start.

But even with everything his first season has thrown at him and a 9-7-3 record, Reirden still feels like he is exactly where he wants to be.

“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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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

In his first year as an NHL head coach, Todd Reirden is well aware that all eyes are on him. Stepping in to coach the defending Stanley Cup champions is a favorable position in many ways, but it does mean Reirden will be under more scrutiny than most coaches in their first year.

For a first-year coach already facing pressure to succeed, it does not help that the season has already thrown a number of curve balls in terms of the roster.

“Coaching the defending champions is a unique challenge in itself,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview, “But I think for the most part that I haven't had much time to spend on that because I've been busy working on different lineups every night.”

With very few departures in the offseason, Washington was able to bring back the vast majority of its Stanley Cup winning team for the 2018-19 season, something that was considered a major strength of the team heading into the new season.

So far, however, we have seen much more roster attrition from the Caps than consistency.

Now 18 games into the season, Reirden has not had his full roster available to him at any point.

Tom Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season due to suspension, Brooks Orpik is currently on long-term injured reserve, Michal Kempny missed the start of the season because of a concussion and missed Wednesday’s game due to an illness, Travis Boyd has played in only five games due to a lower-body injury he suffered in training camp and Braden Holtby was a surprise scratch on Wednesday with an upper-body injury that required the team dress an emergency backup goalie in Winnipeg. Even John Carlson sat out a game with a lower-body injury.

Things may get worse before they get better given Evgeny Kuznetsov left Wedensday’s game early with an upper-body injury, T.J. Oshie appeared dazed after getting slammed to the ice by Josh Morrissey and Holtby is still considered day-to-day.

The rest of the league, however, does not care about the Caps’ suspensions and injuries. Washington does not get extra points in the standings because they have missed so many players and there are no asterisks next to Reirden’s head coaching record.

In the early part of the season, Reirden’s focus has had to shift from bringing the defending champs back to their championship form to simply surviving the team’s current roster attrition while facing questions as to why the team has been so inconsistent all the while.

Reirden has enjoyed the challenge.

“I think it's allowed us to really focus on what gives us the best chance to win, putting guys in different situations, manipulating lineups against other teams and what they have as the strengths in their lineup and how we can combat that,” he said. “So it's been a challenge from that standpoint in terms of moving our lines around and different components. That's made it a little bit more challenging, but that's the part I really enjoy is making those adjustments in house and figuring out how to set up things for success.”

Reirden has certainly not been shy about changing his line combinations or the defensive pairings early in the season as he searched to find the right fit for each spot, each situation. The return of Wilson certainly seems to have made things more clear on the offensive lines, at least in terms of the top-nine.

But while the early suspension and the team’s early injury woes have led to some early struggles and while this certainly is not the start that Reirden would have hoped for in his first season, he is taking a big picture view of it all and stressing the positives.

There’s not much more that this season could throw at the Caps that Reirden and the team has not already had to adjust to.

“It's probably been part of the reason we've had some inconsistency is because of the different changes we've had with different lines and different D-pairs,” Reirden said. “But in the long run, it'll actually help prepare us for adversity that comes to us down the road.”

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With all eyes on the offense, the defense stole the show in the Caps’ win over Edmonton

With all eyes on the offense, the defense stole the show in the Caps’ win over Edmonton

It takes a lot to get Todd Reirden angry.

On the spectrum of coaches, Reirden falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from a guy like John Tortorella, for example, and tends to remain pretty calm in games and when dealing with the media. If he has a problem with his team, he addresses it behind closed doors.

When the team returned home Friday after a sloppy loss to the Montreal Canadiens, however, Reirden was not shy about how displeased he was with the team’s defensive effort.

“You don't have to go back and play in defensive zone coverage when you want to manage the puck properly,” Reirden said. “If you want to put the puck in the offensive zone and put it below their goal line when you're leading a game, then you don't really need to worry about your defensive zone. But if you want to not manage it properly and go chance for chance one way or the other, then you're asking to be put in difficult situations.”

Reirden had a very different tone after Monday’s 4-2 win when the Capitals effectively shutdown Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

“I thought they did a good job [with their] sticks, getting in shot lanes as best we could and tying up sticks around the net,” Reirden said.

Defense has been a topic of conversation of late considering how porous the Caps have been this season. Heading into Monday’s game, they were allowing 3.83 goals per game which has led to Reirden lamenting the team’s defensive effort.

Considering how they played in Monday’s game, it looked as if the team finally got the message.

“We really talked about some team defense,” T.J. Oshie said, “And getting the things that have given us success in the past, away from the puck and at times with the puck, back in our game. So, that’s everyone coming back and stopping in the house, kind of we call it, in front of the net there defensively, and then branching out from there.”

“We’ve been a little bit loose in our own end,” Devante Smith-Pelly said, “So we wanted to tighten up, and we know specifically with [Connor McDavid] out there and [Leon Draisaitl] and those guys we’d have no choice or they’d make us pay. So, we did a good job.”
Edmonton is not a particularly deep team offensively, but their top-six is among the best in the NHL especially with McDavid, arguably the best player in the world, centering the top line. The Oilers presented an interesting challenge to Washington because of how many minutes their top-six forwards play.

McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all played over 21 minutes on Monday.

“They play their top six so many minutes,” Reirden said. “It's a difficult matchup game and really a lot of tough minutes for, in particular, our top-four defensemen.”

To slow down that offense, Reirden matched Edmonton’s top line with Nicklas Backstrom’s line, but also tweaked that line to include Chandler Stephenson on the wing.

“I wanted to have Stephenson there because he skates well, he paid the price blocking shots and getting some opportunities,” Reirden said. “He was strong on the penalty kill as well, used him at the end of the game so I thought it was one of his stronger games of the year if you ask me.”

But the main difference for Washington on Monday was a defensive commitment that the team had been lacking for much of the season.

The keyword for Washington’s defense is commitment. The team needs to commit to getting into shooting lanes and blocking shots. It needs to commit to the physical battles in front of the net and boxing out those forwards.

That was the kind of commitment the team got on Monday.

“That's important for us to be able to get in those shot lanes and you see it started to affect their offensive play,” Reirden said. “Their defensemen are getting it up top and instead of putting it on net now because we're in the shot lane they start going off the yellow and behind and plays that aren't directly at our net. That helps ease some of the tensions around the front of our net.”

Pheonix Copley who got the start on Monday, was certainly appreciative of the team’s effort in front of him.

“They blocked a lot of shots, they kept a lot to the outside,” he said. “We'd talked a lot about that, and I thought they played really well and made my job a lot easier."

The type of commitment the Caps’ defense is predicated on is easy to come by in the Stanley Playoffs. It’s a lot harder to convince a team to sell out in November.

But there was a stark contrast between the team’s defensive effort on Monday and how they played in the losses to Montreal and Dallas. Will that be enough to convince the team they have to have that level of commitment on a regular basis?

Said Reirden, “Good commitment by our high forwards and [that’s] something that needs to be consistent from us here moving forward."

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