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Sullivan won't let Penguins off the hook

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Sullivan won't let Penguins off the hook

If the NHL regular season ended today, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That wouldn’t fly with their new no-nonsense head coach Mike Sullivan, who on Saturday was promoted from the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Penguins to replace Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh and will be behind the bench Monday night against the Capitals.

In fact, not much is going to fly with Sullivan, who has earned the reputation as a stern taskmaster in his career as a head coach in Boston and John Tortorella’s assistant coach in Tampa, New York and Vancouver.

Late in the 2012-13 season, after former Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik was placed on waivers by the Caps and claimed by the Rangers I remember Hamrlik telling me that playing for John Tortorella and Sullivan was like “being in prison.” Players who smiled on the ice were met by a glare by Sullivan, Hamrlik told me.

Maybe that’s what the Penguins think they need.

RELATED: Holtby has been a model of consistency for Caps

The last time the Caps and Penguins met on Oct. 28, Caps coach Barry Trotz said he understood Johnston’s challenge of getting his players to buy into the defensive style he was selling. When I mentioned those comments to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby he made it clear that “buying in” was not an issue for him or his teammates.

The Pens went on to win that game 3-1 in Washington, but their offense continued to struggle after that. Through their first 28 games the Penguins rank 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2.36) and 25th in goals allowed (2.32).

As coach of the AHL Penguins, Sullivan, 47, had an 18-5-0-0 record for the best winning percentage (.783) in the league, and his team had scored 85 goals, third most in the AHL.

Sullivan’s only NHL experience as a head coach came from 2003-06 when he coached the Bruins for two seasons. Boston finished first (41-19-15-7) in the Northeast Division that first season but were knocked out of the playoffs by the Canadiens in the first round.

Following the 2004-05 lockout, the Bruins went 29-37-16 under Sullivan and finished last in the division, prompting Sullivan’s dismissal following the 2005-06 season.

Since then, Sullivan has served as Tortorella’s assistant with the Lightning, Rangers and Canucks. He was hired by the Penguins to replace John Hynes after Hynes was hired to coach the New Jersey Devils.

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby leads Capitals past Lightning, 2-1

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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.

MORE CAPITALS COVERAGE:

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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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