“I think the first year he did a good job,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said Sunday during a video conference call with reporters. “Probably Christmas this year, you could see the style of play started to deteriorate. Our team game wasn’t as good as it had been. It was going in the wrong direction. Our compete level was in and out, so we had some inconsistencies, and I think it just built from there. We started to find it maybe a little bit, but I think the inconsistent play continued into the bubble, and we paid the price at the end.”
Reirden, 49, failed to record a playoff series win as Washington’s head coach, losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019 and to the New York Islanders in 2020. The Islanders, coached by Barry Trotz, dispatched the Capitals in five games this year. Trotz guided the Capitals to the Stanley Cup in 2018 but left amid a contract dispute. Reirden was on Trotz’s coaching staff and was promoted after his departure. MacLellan reiterated Sunday that it was “disappointing” that the organization could not come to an agreement with Trotz at the time and, while the team was “more than willing to pay market level,” the length of the contract Trotz sought was the sticking point.
The familiarity Reirden had with the Capitals’ players led to his promotion.
“There was a continuity that we tried to duplicate with Todd to keep the same structure going forward, and I think it worked for a while. As we evolved, it started to slip, and it wasn’t working,” MacLellan said. “I guess in hindsight you could say we could’ve brought in a more experienced guy, but I thought that was the right decision at the right time.”
Reirden, who was in his first head coaching job, earned praise from his players, especially the defensemen he helped mold — a group that includes John Carlson, a Norris Trophy finalist this season. But he didn’t find success when it mattered most.
Early in Reirden’s sophomore year behind the bench, the team looked primed to win another Presidents’ Trophy through 40 games, but the Capitals spiraled as the postseason loomed. By the time the novel coronavirus pandemic forced a pause in the season, Washington was 8-9-3 in its last 20 games of the regular season. The team had consecutive wins only once in that span.
When play resumed months later, there was hope that the Capitals would be able to fix their problems and start anew in the postseason. But they reverted to their old ways and never recovered.
MacLellan said he met with a few players before Reirden’s firing was announced, and he noted there was “frustration throughout the organization” with how the team performed in the playoffs.
Reirden did not respond to a request for comment but did release a statement via the team: “I want to thank the Washington Capitals organization for allowing me an opportunity to coach this team, our players for their effort and trust, and the fantastic fanbase for their support not only of me but also for my family. While I’m disappointed that we could not bring another championship to D.C., I will always cherish my six years with this organization and our memorable run in 2018. I wish this team nothing but success in the future.”
The organization does not have a timetable for its next hire, with MacLellan saying the team would “sit with this for a little while.” As the Capitals look for their next leader, experience is a priority. Veteran coaches on the market include Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, Mike Babcock and Bruce Boudreau, who led Washington from 2007 to 2011. Scott Arniel, the Capitals assistant who spent a season and a half as the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, could be an option, too.
“Watching our performance in the bubble in Toronto, I think we need an experienced coach,” MacLellan said. “We have an experienced group. We need someone to come in and push some buttons on some players — some good players. I think one thing that happened for us in the bubble is our structure didn’t seem to be there. … We’re going to need someone that can come in and establish that as a big part of our identity. Going forward, ownership is open if it makes sense to spend money on a coach.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin has had six head coaches in his NHL career. All except Trotz, who had spent 15 years leading the Nashville Predators, had no NHL head coaching experience when they were put at the helm of the Capitals. Ovechkin, who turns 35 next month, is entering the final year of his 13-year, $124 million contract.
Reirden was promoted from the team’s top assistant coach in June 2018 after Trotz resigned a week earlier. Trotz coached the 2017-18 season on the last year of his four-year deal, and Reirden was widely considered to be his in-house replacement.
At the time of Reirden’s promotion, MacLellan said his emphasis on development made Reirden a favorite to replace Trotz. MacLellan said Washington wanted someone who was “up to date on the modern game,” was progressive, was looking to try new things and had a good relationship with the players.
In his four years as an assistant, Reirden mainly worked with Washington’s defensemen and earned a reputation for shaping and developing blue-liners, particularly Carlson. He also had a hand in helping Dmitry Orlov blossom, and he worked with former Capitals Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington and in his previous coaching stop as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The previous coach to be fired in Washington was Adam Oates in 2014, when he and general manager George McPhee lost their jobs after the Capitals failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
“I think we have had a good culture here, and it is starting to slip,” MacLellan said. “I think we need to grab a hold of it and get it back to where it was. There needs to be consistency in our game, and that is with our good players, too.”
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