Here’s where we were with Todd Reirden as the Washington Capitals prepared to open the season a year ago: He had something to prove.
Here’s where we are with Reirden as the Caps prepare to open this season Wednesday night at St. Louis in a matchup of the past two Cup winners: He has more to prove.
“I have the experience of going through what we did last year,” Reirden said in his office one day during training camp. “But it’s a completely different entity.”
Reirden’s right. The dynamics of this Caps season don’t at all resemble the Cup hangover from last fall. Reirden’s first season contained unusual challenges, particularly for a first-time head coach. Yeah, he did the research. Sure, he made the calls. He tried to figure out whether there were consistent elements that might allow a championship club to push itself to another. He did his due diligence.
The result: a solid regular season in which just three teams collected more points than the Caps. But it still ended in a first-round playoff exit to the less-talented Carolina Hurricanes.
Maybe, given all the Caps had done to break through and win a title, a thud the following spring was expected, even accepted. Whatever. What’s undeniable is that, moving forward, Reirden will be evaluated differently. Last year’s team was all but identical to the Cup winners. This one has turnover. Not to the core but on the edges, where the coaching staff can make a difference.
It’s on Reirden to do that.
“He came in in a different circumstance — championship team, short offseason,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “There’s some built-in stuff you can say affected everything. We did have a good year. I think of the first-year head coaches, he had the most wins, but he probably had the best team, too. So we had discussions of ways that he could get better as a coach.”
Here’s the unfortunate part that shadows Reirden still: Barry Trotz, the coach under whom the Caps won the Cup, left to coach the New York Islanders, who reside in the same division as the Caps. Last year, as Reirden was trying to coax the injured and flagging Caps to the finish line, Trotz was roaring up from behind, turning an 80-point team that gave up goals in bunches in 2017-18 into a 103-point team that was the league’s stingiest a year later. It took until the 81st game of the season for the Caps to clinch the Metro over Trotz’s Islanders. When the playoffs began, Trotz swept the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Reirden lost to the Hurricanes.
So Trotz is gone, but his presence still looms over the Caps and his old assistant, Reirden. Is that fair? It doesn’t really matter. It just is.
All that makes Reirden’s 2019-20 similar to this season for Nationals Manager Dave Martinez. When Martinez, a lifelong assistant, made his debut as a manager in 2018, he did so in place of Dusty Baker, who had averaged 96 wins and delivered two division titles in his two seasons with the Nats. Martinez followed by winning 82 games and taking October off. His encore the next year: a postseason appearance.
How to get better, then? Reirden believes circumstances will make him better because the group he brings into this season isn’t as gassed as last year’s team was. In January, the Caps lost seven straight games and seemed on the brink. How would a first-year coach handle it?
“On two occasions, I remember I wanted to really get upset and get mad about how things were going,” Reirden said. “But I looked in their faces, and I could feel that they were just trying to get through to the [all-star] break. And I think that’s truly understanding how you can use the right times to teach and when to get mad because you can’t do it every day.”
The seventh of those losses came in Toronto the night before the break for the All-Star Game. Afterward, Reirden gathered the team. He told the players that he expected they would struggle at some point during the year and that he understood they were fatigued. But the message was clear: “Expect when you return that there will be a different standard and a different level of accountability.”
“This year,” Reirden said, “that can be established earlier.”
Sitting there, listening to these stories, was a reminder of what might be the defining thing about Todd Reirden: He believes in Todd Reirden. Last season, even during those struggles, it was occasionally jarring to hear his self-confidence in how he could get them out of it. Now he enters a season with what might be a better team than the one he had last year and, in a way, must prove to people that the Caps made the right hire after Trotz left.
MacLellan originally hired Reirden onto Trotz’s staff when he took over as general manager in 2014. He then promoted him to the head job. It was the GM’s duty, then, to help Reirden evaluate himself after last year’s playoff exit.
“I think he’s excellent [at] X’s and O’s,” MacLellan said. “I think that’s a natural fit for him. I think that’s his strength. I think things around the team, there’s a lot of responsibilities added when you’re the head coach — a lot of people you have to touch during the day, a lot of players you have to communicate with during the day, a lot of added responsibilities for a first-year guy. The expectation is he learns and grows from all the stuff he went through last year.”
Whatever the stuff from a year ago, it will be different this time. He needs to find a way to get Evgeny Kuznetsov to be an elite center in every game. He needs to work in new defensemen and find the right mix with his bottom-six forwards, all while making sure franchise pillars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom continue to produce well into their 30s.
“I’ve played this out in my mind a number of times,” Reirden said.
You can imagine it, in Reirden’s mind, working out. Now we will see whether it does on the ice.