“I think we have had a good culture here, and it is starting to slip,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said Sunday during a video conference call with reporters. “I think we need to grab a hold of it and get it back to where it was.”
Expect a voice. Expect a veteran. Expect someone who doesn’t have to grow into the job. Expect someone who knows every aspect of the job — and intimately.
More than that: Expect the success of Reirden’s successor to be a major factor in how MacLellan is evaluated — from the seats at Capital One Arena, assuming they’re allowed to be filled at some point, and from the owner’s suite as well.
The following can both be true: You can understand why MacLellan handed Reirden the job two years ago, after Barry Trotz won the Cup but the Caps balked at his request for five more years, and also believe it was absolutely a mistake.
MacLellan understands that handing a veteran team to a rookie coach was inherently a risk. In those situations, you just can’t know until you know, but the check marks on Reirden’s side following the run to the Cup — same system, same language, familiarity with personnel, some players advocating for him — weighed heavily in MacLellan’s decision-making. Add in the fact that this new hire had to be made in June, when most of the marquee names are off the board, and it made sense — at the time.
“I guess in hindsight you could say we could've brought in a more experienced guy,” MacLellan said.
There will be no hindsight this time. The Caps are out early, after just five dead-in-the-water games against the Islanders — which, around here, will always be Trotz’s Islanders.
Mike Babcock is available. Peter Laviolette is available. Combined, they have 35 years of NHL head coaching experience. Each has won the Cup. Throw in Gerard Gallant, who took Vegas to the Cup finals against the Caps in 2018 and has nine years as a head man behind the bench, and there are enough options.
(And before you say, “What about Bruce Boudreau?” let me preempt you and ask, “What about Bruce Boudreau?” Gabby may have been tons of fun and the first coach to push the Alex Ovechkin-era Caps into the playoffs, but what Washington wants now is someone who knows how to navigate the postseason. Boudreau, who went on to coach Anaheim and Minnesota, hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015.)
There’s a reason, though, that this hire matters more for MacLellan than the previous one. Last time, when Trotz resigned, he was backed into a corner. This time, the general manager is betting that his roster — one he assembled to win a Cup and then largely kept together to try to do it again — can excel again with the right coach.
We’re not going to go over the why-is-Trotz-with-the-Islanders-and-not-the-Caps territory again. That’s old news. From MacLellan’s perspective, it’s imperative that the new coach is able to extract the best performance from his players — because this roster doesn’t offer a lot in the way of flexibility, and it isn’t getting younger.
Here’s a tell on whether a coaching staff is milking the most out of its players: how they perform in new environments.
In Reirden’s case, there’s damning evidence. Andre Burakovsky, a maddening 2013 first-round pick, never managed more than 38 points in five seasons with the Capitals; traded to Colorado after last season, he had 45 points in 58 regular season games and is confidently playing on the second line for a team that reached the second round. Chandler Stephenson had a hard time staying in the Caps’ lineup under Reirden; dumped for a fifth-round draft pick to Vegas in December, he has centered the Golden Knights’ fourth line into the second round.
The point: In both of these instances, there was something there that Reirden and his staff couldn’t get out.
It’s on the next coach to extract the maximum out of the players who remain. Evgeny Kuznetsov evaporated during last year’s playoff loss to Carolina and drifted in and out of consciousness during the Caps’ stay in the Toronto bubble. He’s too talented to be so inconsistent, and the new coach should consider Kuznetsov to be Project A. Not far behind might be Jakub Vrana, who has not registered a point in the past two postseasons — which is hard to do for someone playing among the top six forwards.
This has to be someone who can reach players who have seen coaches come and go. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson have combined for 51 NHL seasons. MacLellan is betting that this group of 30-somethings can take new direction, thrive under it and help that message filter through the dressing room — all while keeping their legs and their edge as their prime years dwindle away.
“I think we have developed a habit of thinking that we can play good when we have to play good,” MacLellan said, “versus, ‘Let’s develop good habits and the consistency with our good habits, and the games will take care of themselves.’ ”
In the playoffs the past two seasons, the games haven’t taken care of themselves, so Reirden is out of a job. The next coach knows the expectations before the interview: Develop the habits that take a team deep into the playoffs, or the entire organization will be examined more closely.
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