Todd Reirden took his seat to be formally introduced as the Washington Capitals’ next coach on Tuesday in front of a backdrop that featured the team’s logo below the outline of hockey’s grandest trophy. “Stanley Cup champions” has been etched onto the practice facility doors, the new standard for the organization unavoidable.
“I think certainly it will be a unique challenge,” Reirden said. “There’s no need to put that into any other way than it is. I’m coming into a situation where we’ve had success and have been able to get the biggest prize in the game in our hands. And we did it a certain way. There’s going to be many things that stay the same, but there’s going to be some things that I think I have to be cognizant of with a team that’s going to be repeating.”
Reirden’s introduction comes within a month of the franchise winning its first championship. Though the team had to change coaches after Barry Trotz suddenly resigned and then took the New York Islanders’ head job three days later, the past 26 days have been devoted to keeping much of the team together in the hope of a Stanley Cup repeat.
Defensemen John Carlson and Michal Kempny were both re-signed, meaning the Capitals’ top four blue-liners are all under contract for at least three more seasons. Washington was able to retain right wing Devante Smith-Pelly, a fan favorite after his seven playoff goals, with a team-friendly one-year, $1 million contract. The new coach is one who’s been on the bench with most of the roster for the past four seasons as an assistant.
“It’s important to keep continuity for me, especially after you’ve won,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think we’ve established some things, especially at the end of the year here culturally and the way we play, that we can build on this year. I think it’s important that Todd continues what we’ve done and builds on that.”
MacLellan has just two items to check off for the remainder of the offseason: re-signing restricted free agent winger Tom Wilson and adding a veteran defenseman for the team’s third defense pairing. MacLellan said he planned to speak with Wilson’s representation on Tuesday afternoon, and his preference would be to sign Wilson, who played most of the season on a top line opposite captain Alex Ovechkin, to a long-term deal. Several industry insiders have ballparked the average annual value for that contract at between $3.5 million and $4.5 million for the 24-year-old.
The team cleared cap space to re-sign Carlson and Kempny by trading away veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik (and his $5.5 million cap hit) to the Colorado Avalanche as part of a deal that included goaltender Philipp Grubauer. But after the Avalanche bought out the final year of Orpik’s contract, he’s free to re-sign with Washington at a lower cost. MacLellan said the team has been in contact with him. “He’s making some decisions himself, and hopefully we might be able to work it out,” MacLellan said. Other free agent blue line options include Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis, Jason Garrison, Luca Sbisa and Alexei Emelin, but the Capitals also want Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey to get playing time to continue developing in what will be their sophomore seasons.
As for how the team plays systematically, MacLellan expects it to look largely the same even with Reirden now at the helm. Assistant coach Blaine Forsythe, goaltending coach Scott Murray and video coaches Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi will all carry over onto Reirden’s staff.
“He might try a couple different things,” MacLellan said of Reirden. “I think power play is the same. Penalty kill might be a little more pressure. There’s subtle tweaks that we’ve talked about that he wants to try in the lineup. I don’t think it’s going to be much different.”
No other Capitals coach has ever had to worry about defending a title before, much less in his first season. Reirden said he’s already spoken to some other coaches around the league about the challenges in repeating and even made some adjustments to Washington’s calendar in an effort to keep players engaged through the dog days to start the season. But he also described it as “extremely, extremely comforting” that the bulk of the roster will be back. Perhaps it’s the expectations that will be the biggest change.
“I was able to really help develop relationships up and down our lineup, and I think that’s something that really puts me at ease going into the situation,” Reirden said. “Obviously, every roster is going to look a little different, and you’re going to go through adversity whether it’s injuries or adjustments we make organizationally, trade-wise or call-ups or different situations. But I just love the direction our team is headed, I love the speed that we play with now, I love the physicality that we still are able to have and really impose our will on [opponents]. And then I really love the skill level that we have. We have some of the very best players in the world at their positions, so it’s a very exciting time for Capitals hockey. …
“It’s really an honor and a privilege to be coming into a situation like this where I get to work with these really high-end players and, more importantly, people that represent the Washington Capitals.”