The office reserved for the Washington Capitals’ new coach was getting a fresh coat of paint when Todd Reirden emerged from it on the last day of August. The practice facility had gotten a few new touches over the summer, too: Stanley Cup champions logos engraved on the glass front-entrance doors.
Reirden spent a lot of time in and around that office as an assistant the past four years, but this season will mark his first sitting behind the desk after being promoted to the head post in July in the wake of Barry Trotz’s sudden resignation. Friday’s start of training camp marks the true beginning of his tenure, and the expectation is daunting for a rookie head coach: win the Stanley Cup again.
“It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t trade places with anybody on,” Reirden said.
Reirden will have the benefit of a roster with minimal turnover from last season, but he also has the challenge of guiding the Capitals through a potential championship hangover to start. Coaching changes are typically reserved for teams that seek a different direction, but Reirden is entering a unique situation — this is just the fifth time in the past 40 years the defending Cup-winner hasn’t returned its coach. Not much will be different with the system, but that doesn’t mean Reirden hasn’t considered how to put his own stamp on things.
He’s consulted members of more than one NHL team coming off a Stanley Cup run, and he has firsthand experience from when he was on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ staff the season after their 2009 title. He’s also researched teams coming off championships outside the sport. The motivation to slog through the start of a long regular season can be minimal, and players also have had a truncated summer of recovery and training.
“The certain way we’re going to go through the first portion of training camp, the intensity of it, that will be at a high level immediately,” Reirden said. “A lot of people in the past may have eased into training camps, and that has not, in my research that I’ve found, worked out well. It’s important for me to set the tone for how we’re going to work and how we’re going to do things.
“The first part of training camp is not going to be easy, and in turn, once I’ve set that tone and gotten players back up and running, then we’ll make some adjustments to allow them to enter the start of the season with as much energy as they can.”
There won’t be much competition for roster spots. Of the lineup the Capitals put on the ice during the finals against Vegas, just fourth-line center Jay Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer are gone. Pheonix Copley has the inside track to replace Grubauer as Braden Holtby’s understudy. The organization also is high on top prospect Ilya Samsonov, the 2015 first-round draft pick who’ll play his first season in North America this year, but prefers he get some American Hockey League experience first.
Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd are expected to contend for the fourth-line center role, though both probably will be on the opening-night roster. Dowd is new to the Capitals, signed in free agency after playing for Los Angeles and Vancouver last season, but he’s familiar with joining a team coming off a championship. He said the 2015-16 Kings were “business as usual” once the new season started after their title, and he’s seen a similar attitude from the Capitals he’s gotten to know through informal skates over the past week.
“It hasn’t been one of those things where guys have been talking about [the Stanley Cup] all of the time,” Dowd said. “I think they’re ready to go and ready for the new season. I think they’ve, as well as they can, put it behind them in the aspect of, they’ve enjoyed it, I’m sure, and now they’re ready to start anew.”
Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich and Sergei Shumakov, whom the organization recently signed after he scored 17 goals with 23 assists in 47 games for CSKA Moscow of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last season, will be in the hunt for depth forward spots. But the grind of a long playoff run can correlate with more injuries to start the next season, so Reirden said training camp will help determine who might get called-up from the minors if the Capitals indeed run into that.
“That’s something we need to be prepared for,” Reirden said. “That’s why, even though there’s technically not a spot in certain places, there really is competition for if something were to happen. We are in a [salary] cap-strapped situation, and players have to be able to fill in and take advantage of those opportunities. … Especially call-ups that happen in the beginning of the year, it’s more based on body of work, which starts from the first day of camp for me.”
With the departure of Beagle, who averaged the most shorthanded ice time among Capitals forwards last season, Reirden expects to make the most significant tweaks to the penalty kill. He’ll have two new assistant coaches to incorporate in Reid Cashman, an assistant with Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey last year, and Scott Arniel, most recently the New York Rangers’ associate coach and previously the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2010 to 2012.
The changes are minimal by design, and though Reirden finds himself in a new office, he appreciates that the expectations remain lofty.
“To be able to earn that Stanley Cup and have a big role in it and have won with these guys, I wouldn’t trade place with anybody to see the happiness from not only the players, but what it’s done for the whole entire D.C. area,” Reirden said. “If that means that it’s a difficult situation for me that I’m coming into a spot where we’ve won in the past, then so be it. I’ll take that responsibility any day of the week if that means I was able to be part of a Stanley Cup championship with a large majority of the guys in our room.”