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End of season review: Matt Niskanen

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End of season review: Matt Niskanen

Throughout the coming weeks, CSNWashington.com Capitals Insider Chuck Gormley will evaluate the 2014-15 performance of each player on the Caps roster. One breakdown will occur every day in alphabetical order. Today: Matt Niskanen

Position: Defense

Shoots: Right

Age: 28 [turns 29 Dec. 6]

Ht/Wt: 6-2, 200

Games: 82

Goals: 4

Assists: 27

Points: 31

Penalty minutes: 47

Plus-Minus: Plus-7

Average Ice Time: 22:21

Playoff games: 14

Goals: 0

Assists: 4

Points: 4

Penalty minutes: 0

Plus-Minus: Minus-2

Average Ice Time: 23:47

Contract Status: 6 years remaining on 7-year, $40.25 million contract [2015-16 salary: $5.75 million; cap hit: $5.75 million]

Strengths: Entering this season many wondered if Niskanen could duplicate the career-high numbers he put up in Pittsburgh the year before, especially with the Capitals investing seven years and more than $40 million in him. Niskanen fell short from a statistical standpoint [from 10 goals, 36 assists in 2013-14 to 4 goals, 27 assists this season] but under Barry Trotz and Todd Reirden he was used in a different capacity, logging more shorthanded minutes [187:37] than at any point in his career while logging fewer power-play minutes [87:17] than he received in Pittsburgh. That scenario could change next season if power-play specialist Mike Green does not return, but Niskanen made a significant impact on the Caps’ blue line this season, logging more minutes [1,833:01] than everyone on the club but John Carlson [1,891:58].  “My role was different this year than in the past,” Niskanen said. “A lot more responsibility playing against tougher opponents, more minutes. It was a real challenge [playing on the penalty kill] and I thought I grew a lot. I’m glad I paid attention to all those meetings the last seven years. It was nice to get some reps there.”

Room for improvement: Overall, Niskanen said he thought he had a “pretty successful” season, but acknowledged there are areas he can be better.  “Like always, I try to be realistic with myself with how things went,” he said. “There were moments where I thought I was really good and a few moments when I had some real blunders. That’s part of the growth, recognizing your mistakes and where to be better. It’s a constant process.” Niskanen said he had an ankle issue that “bugged” him for some time and had an X-ray on his hand, but said neither injury prevented him from playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career, along with all 14 playoff games. Niskanen’s defensive play seemed to dip in the post-season, reflected in his minus-2 rating. Interestingly, Niskanen said he lost 10 pounds from the start of the season to its end and noted the importance of beefing up this summer and maintaining his weight through an entire season. “I’d like to improve on everything I do, my strengths and my weaknesses,” he said. “Physically, this is a big summer for me. I’d like to get stronger. That’s always going to be a battle for me. I’m probably an average sized defenseman in the league now. If I can be a little bit stronger and be a little heavier in the corners and in front of the net that’s going to be beneficial to my overall game and handling bigger forwards. I lost quite a bit of muscle and I’m hoping with a good training routine and nutrition I can keep my strength up at end of the season.”

Memorable Moment: Niskanen’s clean but ferocious hit on Flyers rookie forward Scott Laughton on Jan. 14 was one of the best in the NHL this season. Niskanen saw Laughton with his head down and flattened him with a shoulder to the chest and chin of Laughton, who did not return for the third period. A few weeks later, on Feb. 8,  Niskanen honored the hockey code by agreeing to fight Laughton, who wanted a payback for the hit. “He got a chance to feel better about himself,” Niskanen said.

Quotable: “It hurts the way it ended. That sucks. There’s no sugar-coating that. But team-wide we got a lot better this year. We grew a lot. I think all of us truly believe this was maybe going to be our year. That’s what hurts. What really sucks is you gotta go through that whole 82-game process again before you get another crack at it. You have to wait a whole calendar year before you get another chance. That hurts.” – Niskanen on breakup day

2015-16 Expectations: With some work in the weight room this summer Niskanen should be better prepared to handle some of the NHL’s bigger forwards next season, when he likely will be reunited with Karl Alzner on the Caps’ second pairing. He said he’s encouraged by the growth he saw in the club this season and the potential of going farther next spring. “It was good to see a lot of guys really commit to being better,” he said. “I tried to come in here with a clean slate and fresh mind and not judge people before I really got to know them for myself. There were some perceptions about the group here with work habits and consistency and I thought as a group we really committed to getting better and I think we grew a lot in that department, just being better professionals. That’s a good base to have, that work ethic and commitment to finding ways to get better. More specifically, defensively it was the best year for this organization for a while and that’s more than just a player or two. Without the puck we had guys that were really, really committed and that’s good to see. … When things got really tough we played better. We had our moments when we weren’t sharp all the time, but when we really needed to win and we got challenged we seemed to  play our best game, That’s a good sign and a good trait for a team to have that kind of culture and attitude.”

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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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