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Holtby: 'Our goal isn't to win the regular season'

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Holtby: 'Our goal isn't to win the regular season'

For fans who vividly remember the incredible dominance of the 2009-10 Capitals, this season seems all too familiar.

The Capitals of six years sprinted to the Presidents’ Trophy with a league-high 121 points, eight more than any other team in the NHL, and 38 points more than the second-place Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division.

The 2015-16 Capitals are on pace for 130 points, two short of the NHL record set by the 1976-77 Canadiens, and have opened up a five-point lead on the Chicago Blackhawks and an 18-point lead on the second-place New York Rangers in the Atlantic Division.

Led by a dynamic trio of Alex Ovechkin (50 goals), Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals) and Alex Semin (40 goals), the 2009-10  Caps finished first in the NHL in goals per game (3.82) and power play percentage (25.2 percent).

This year’s Capitals also lead the NHL in goals per game (3.33) and power-play percentage (27.1 percent). Ovechkin is on pace for 50 goals, Backstrom is set to hit 28 and right wing T.J. Oshie is on pace for 27.

The 2009-10 Caps won a franchise-record 13 straight home games, a mark the 2015-16 Caps can match with a win Friday night at home against the Anaheim Ducks, who are coached by the same man who guided that 2009-10 team, Bruce Boudreau.

But to those who remember the 2009-10 Capitals, who were eliminated by Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens in seven games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is a distinct difference this season.

“This team just seems more robotic,” said left wing Brooks Laich, who recorded 25 goals and 59 points for the 2009-10 Caps.

“That team was a little bit Jekyll and Hyde sometimes. We could score five goals, but we could also give up five. This team is more controlled in terms of a more consistent style of play.

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“Over 60 minutes we make it very difficult for teams to hang with us for the full 60. It might be tight after one, it might be tight after two, but usually we can feel the ice tilting a little bit and we’re going to find our breaks. We have great goaltending, great special teams and we’re hard to play against. We’re harder to beat, I think.”

The reason is team defense. The 2009-10 Capitals ranked 15th in the NHL in goals against per game (2.77) and 25th on the penalty kill (78.8 percent). This year’s Caps rank first in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.15) and fourth on the penalty kill (84.9 percent).

“The way we’re winning games is different,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner, who played 21 games as a rookie on that 2009-10 team. “We won a lot of high-scoring games that year and we didn’t have to grind out as many as we have this year.

“The confidence is there and we feel good about the way we do win games. A lot of it comes from the coaches; a lot of it comes from the veterans in this room.”

Unlike their predecessors, this year’s Capitals have found a way to shut the door on teams after building a lead. They are 17-0-0 when leading after one period, 26-0-1 when leading after two, and 13-2-3 in one-goal games. They are also 30-8 in games decided in regulation.

“I think with Barry it’s defense first,” said former NHL coach Craig Berube, now scouting for Team Canada. “He makes everybody accountable defensively. They don’t give you a lot of room out there. They’ve got five guys on the ice willing to play defense and that’s the biggest difference I see.

“I think last year we all saw how they can play in the playoffs and that’s the way you’ve got to win games. How many 2-1 games did Chicago win last year? It takes a lot of grinding, hard work, blocking shots, all the dirty stuff. They’re still scoring lots of goals and their power play is still good, but they’re playing way better defensively.

“And (Braden) Holtby’s a top goalie. What I like about him is he can let in a bad goal and it doesn’t bother him.”

Holtby, who is on pace to establish an NHL record with 53 wins, credits Trotz for the Caps’ businesslike approach to the regular season and his long-range focus on what lies ahead.

“Standings don’t mean much for us,” Holtby said. “We want to just keep getting better as a group. We go into each game with a game plan and we try to execute it and we’ll see where we end up.

“Our experience in here helps. Guys have been in positions where they’ve been at the top of the standings in the regular season. It helps that this is nothing new. I think in the past maybe it wasn’t handled correctly.

“We’re in a good place right now but our goal isn’t to win the regular season, it’s to win the Stanley Cup.”

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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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