The night the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup championship, Barry Trotz touched the iconic trophy for the first time in his coaching career and triumphantly lifted it over his head. He then passed it to Todd Reirden, the top assistant on his staff. Less than two weeks later, there might be more symbolism to that handoff than most could have believed in the moment.
Trotz resigned as head coach of the Capitals on Monday afternoon, a stunning turn of events considering he’s just the fifth coach in the past 40 years to not be retained by a team coming off a championship. But Washington’s search likely will be swift, especially considering the team will be negotiating with its pending unrestricted free agents later this week and free agency is less than two weeks away. General Manager Brian MacLellan acknowledged that Reirden, the team’s associate head coach, is a candidate and will go through a formal interview. Barring something unforeseen, he’s the overwhelming favorite to be the head man behind the bench next season.
“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said Monday of the coaching search. “You know, 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. If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd, and if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”
While Trotz brought assistant Lane Lambert and goaltending guru Mitch Korn with him from his previous stop in Nashville when he was first hired by the Capitals in 2014, Reirden joined the staff after coaching with Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh. As he did with the Penguins, Reirden primarily worked with the Capitals’ defensemen and has earned a reputation for molding blue-liners. Since the start of the 2014 season, Washington has allowed the fewest goals per game (2.16) in the league with 28.4 shots against per game in that time. Though the Capitals struggled defensively during this past regular season because of significant personnel turnover on the blueline last summer, stingy play became the team’s identity during its deep playoff run.
During a news conference Monday, MacLellan praised the culture change Trotz instituted during his four-year tenure following the toxicity that developed under the previous regime. Promoting Reirden could lead to continuity in that department, though MacLellan said he’s unsure how much of the coaching staff will return. Lambert and Korn are loyal to Trotz and are unlikely to be back. Along with Reirden, assistant Blaine Forsythe, a holdover from Glen Hanlon’s coaching days, is under contract through next season. That leaves goaltending coach Scott Murray, also believed to still be under contract, as a question mark. Reirden has never been an NHL head coach, though when MacLellan was asked what he wants in Trotz’s replacement, that was not listed as a requirement.
“Someone that’s up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that’s progressive, looking to try different things. Someone who has good relationships with players. They communicate and can teach, make players better. It’s becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in as not-fully developed products. 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.”
Reirden was a finalist for Calgary’s top job in 2016, and the Capitals promoted him to associate head coach later that summer. He ran the start of Washington’s training camp going into the following season as Trotz served as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the World Cup. Reirden was prohibited from interviewing for head coaching jobs last summer as part of the agreement for that promotion, though he would’ve been allowed to go elsewhere this summer. With Trotz coaching this past season on the last of his four-year deal, Reirden was widely considered to be his in-house replacement.
He’s seen as a players’ coach, regularly working with the Capitals’ defensemen on an individual basis and reviewing video of shifts with each of them after games. Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen both worked with Reirden in Pittsburgh, and Niskanen has credited Reirden with helping usher in his personal career renaissance after hitting a low when the Dallas Stars traded him to the Penguins in 2011. Pending unrestricted free agent John Carlson has enjoyed career years working with Reirden, and the 28-year-old led league defenders in scoring this season with 15 goals and 53 assists. Dmitry Orlov has similarly blossomed into a top-pairing defenseman under Reirden’s tutelage.
Michal Kempny, a trade-deadline addition for the Capitals this season and a pending unrestricted free agent, spoke highly of Reirden’s influence on him during their three-plus months together, and he said the two have already discussed a plan for the summer for how Kempny can continue improving. Kempny and Carlson are considered the organization’s top unrestricted free agent priorities, and MacLellan said he plans to meet with agents during the NHL draft in Dallas at the end of this week.
“When I came here, I had really, really great meetings with coaches,” Kempny said last week. “I sat down with Todd, and we talked a lot. He told me about the way we want to go, and we did. The plan worked out really well, and I can’t be happier. It’s been an amazing three months for me.”
MacLellan said there’s “no time frame” to name the next coach, and while he’s had several “casual conversations,” he said he would 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.”
The Capitals are also without an American Hockey League coach after the organization opted not to renew Troy Mann’s contract with the Hershey Bears. MacLellan said Washington is down to four or five candidates for that spot, and the Capitals’ next head coach will work closely with the Bears in developing prospects.
Should the Capitals consider external options, Toronto Marlies Coach Sheldon Keefe, who just won the Calder Cup with the Maple Leafs’ minor-league affiliate, is thought of as an up-and-comer with a strong reputation for developing young players. Washington has just two seasons left of superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom under contract together, so if the team wanted someone with more experience, Alain Vigneault, fired by the New York Rangers at the end of this past season, has been a head coach since 1997 and won two conference titles. Bylsma and Darryl Sutter are notable coaches who have won Stanley Cups and who are available.
MacLellan expressed some surprise in Trotz’s resignation, especially after the team just won a Stanley Cup. He and Trotz were hired by team President Dick Patrick and owner Ted Leonsis simultaneously four years ago, so this will be MacLellan’s first coaching search as general manager. After a turn of events he described as “hard,” tabbing a replacement may be relatively easy.
“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said of Reirden. “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.”
Read more on the Capitals: