Todd Reirden

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Even after last year’s Stanley Cup run, there’s still ‘something extra’ in the Capitals-Penguins rivalry

Even after last year’s Stanley Cup run, there’s still ‘something extra’ in the Capitals-Penguins rivalry

The Capitals finally changed their playoff narrative last season with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship and they went through their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to win it. Washington’s run last season changed the nature of the Caps-Penguins rivalry, but if you think it made it any less meaningful, you are very much mistaken.

“No, I don't think they process it as a normal game,” Caps head coach Todd Reirden said of his player’s preparation for Wednesday’s game against the Penguins. “I think there's always a little something extra there.”

For many years, Pittsburgh was the major obstacle that stood in the way of Washington’s Stanley Cup dreams. Prior to last season, Alex Ovechkin had never defeated the Penguins in the playoffs despite facing them three times.

It is also not out of the realm of possibility to suggest the Caps could have hoisted another Cup before last season if not for Sidney Crosby and company, as Pittsburgh beat Washington in the playoffs in all five of the team’s Cup runs.

Things changed in 2018, however, as the Caps finally did the unthinkable. For just the second time in 11 postseason meetings, Washington defeated Pittsburgh.

“Being able to finally get through them last year was a huge part of us being able to win the Cup in the end,” Reirden said. “That's one of those watermarks in terms of your team growing and finally getting past something that's been in your way and that's a little bit of the same relief we talk about with winning a Stanley Cup, the relief you feel. It's also a little bit of a relief when we beat them.”

With that obstacle no longer hanging over their heads, it changes the narrative surrounding the rivalry this season. But it doesn't make it any less intense.

This time, the shoe is on the other foot. This time, Washington is the defending champ, and Pittsburgh is the team that’s chasing. The Caps are in first place in the Metropolitan Division, and Ovechkin is showing no signs of slowing down as the league’s most dominant scorer.

This year, the Caps have set the standard for the Penguins to try to match.

“It's taken on a different look to it now because we're the defending champs now so we know how that feels to be in their shoes and how much you're trying to gauge where your team's at,” Reirden said.

Wednesday’s game no doubt will feel very much like a rivalry in the stands. Amidst the sea of red, there will be pockets of black and gold clad fans with their terrible towels. There will be dueling “Let’s go Penguins” and “Let’s go Caps” chants, and plenty of boos for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But that intensity won’t just be limited to the people off the ice. The players will feel it too.

“It’s 32 games into the year so I wouldn't expect it to be a playoff game,” Reirden said, “But I always think there's a little something extra in those games.”

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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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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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