The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barry Trotz is in Todd Reirden’s head, and the results are clear on the ice

Todd Reirden and the Washington Capitals trail the New York Islanders three games to none in their first-round playoff series in Toronto.
Todd Reirden and the Washington Capitals trail the New York Islanders three games to none in their first-round playoff series in Toronto. (Elsa/Getty Images)
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The small type that summarizes the various series in the Stanley Cup playoffs would show that the New York Islanders lead the Washington Capitals three games to none in the first round, and across North America there’s little more to learn than that. That competition could be staged in a bubble in Toronto or on the fifth moon of Jupiter, and fans in D.C. might well read it as: Barry Trotz 3, Todd Reirden 0.

The coaching matchup has colored this series since before it began, and with the Capitals on the brink of being ousted, it’s much more than a slight tint or a pale hue. Trotz has basically taken a black crayon and drawn a mustache on Reirden to mock him, then scribbled out any advantage the more talented Caps might have.

That Trotz is the better, more established coach who has built a new team in his image, just as he once built the Caps the same way, is not a surprise. Shoot, he won the Stanley Cup all of two years ago with the very team he’s skating circles around now, then took the Islanders from irrelevant to threatening in a single season. That was all established before the puck dropped here.

The Capitals are focused on the Islanders, not Barry Trotz

But it’s worth wondering as this season slips away just as it was restarting: How does Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan evaluate Reirden, his choice as Trotz’s replacement, in the midst of a tournament without fans, with no meaningful home-ice advantage and with key center Nicklas Backstrom on the shelf with a concussion? More than that, how does owner Ted Leonsis — never quick on the trigger finger with leadership positions — process all this information?

Do the circumstances necessitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic alter the way a professional sports team makes important decisions?

The answers, at the moment, are unknowable. But those questions are coming, and coming quickly. What’s irrefutable: Reirden has something to prove, and the proving must come immediately — against his old boss, Trotz.

“I put pressure on myself all the time,” Reirden said after Trotz’s Islanders used Mathew Barzal’s overtime goal Sunday to put a stranglehold on the series with a 2-1 victory. “I believe in myself as a coach and believe in our team and our leadership group that we can focus on getting this one win here and seeing where that takes us from there.

“That’s where our mind needs to be. It’s the top league in the world, and there’s good players and there’s good coaches, and that’s a challenge every night.”

The next challenge comes Tuesday in Game 4. Meet it and live another day. Fail and have the hardest questions asked.

The Capitals, of course, can’t live in the past. But for the purposes of this discussion, it’s worth re-creating how we got here.

Entering the 2017-18 season, Trotz and the Capitals faced enormous pressure. For a franchise that fully understands painful losses, they had endured what might have been the worst, a second-round, Game 7, home shutout to Pittsburgh — evil, reviled Pittsburgh — that all but sucked the breath out of the entire organization. Coming out of that, the reviews on Trotz — who had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs in 18 years as an NHL head coach — were decidedly mixed, both in the locker room and the front office.

With the team still doubled over during that regular season, Trotz faced two pivotal games — a November home date against Minnesota, then a March game at San Jose — in which a loss could have prompted an early exit. The Caps won both times. Trotz went into the playoffs without a contract for the following season but talked about being comfortable with himself despite that. The Caps came back from a 2-0 deficit in the first round against Columbus and then sailed to the Cup. Given he’s soon to be third overall in regular season victories, those two months all but ensured Trotz will eventually end up in the Hall of Fame.

But his exit — and the Capitals’ arrival at Reirden as his replacement — isn’t as simple as Washington being shortsighted or cheap. Trotz’s original deal included a two-year extension that automatically kicked in when the Caps won the Cup — an extension negotiated by Trotz on the way in. Trotz, at the height of his marketability, wanted more money and more years — $5 million annually for five seasons.

Do the math: That would have put Trotz in Washington for nine years and the Caps on the hook for $25 million. That’s more than double the life expectancy of a typical coach in the NHL, a league that seems to thrive on instability behind the bench. If the same issues that cropped up during the regular season resurfaced in Year 1 or 2 of the extension, what do you do?

“There’s not many coaches that have that lasting ability,” MacLellan said at the time. “It’s a long time, and it’s a lot of money to be committing to a coach.”

This is a long-winded way of saying: Trotz had to resign from the position because he was under contract, and I get why he is on the opposite bench in this series.

The issue, then, is Reirden. As a first-time NHL head coach, was he the right choice to be handed a Stanley Cup winner? There’s an argument that, with the franchise at its apex, keeping chemistry and continuity was paramount. There’s another that a veteran team deserves a veteran coach. We could debate that over Molsons until the end of the pandemic.

Either way, a year ago the former defenseman and longtime assistant took the defending Cup winners to another division championship, posting 104 points — just one fewer than Trotz’s team that won it all. But that was obscured by a first-round collapse against a Carolina team the Caps should not have toyed with, a Game 7 loss that stung.

And now, this. With another division winner. With a more talented team than the opposition. With the league’s second-highest-scoring team before the shutdown that hasn’t managed as many as three goals in a single game following the restart. With Trotz both on the other bench and in his head.

“I believe in our group, and I believe in our coaching staff,” Reirden said Sunday, “and primarily our team that’s gone through these types of things in the past with things not going our way and believing in our game and in one another.”

One thing Reirden has never been short on is self-confidence. That’s an attractive quality during an interview process, someone who has seen systems and processes both work and fail, has strong beliefs about the right way to do things and can articulate how he can implement them.

That belief now, though, seems misplaced. No, Todd Reirden didn’t take the five minor penalties that helped limit the Caps’ five-on-five opportunities. He didn’t fail to bury an overtime breakaway, as Jakub Vrana did. And he didn’t allow Barzal to get behind the defense on the game-winner.

But this is Reirden’s team, and the results are on his record. Right now, they don’t come close to matching those of the man who once held the same position — who happens to be on the other bench, crayon in hand, coloring this series however he sees fit.

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