As Todd Reirden saw it, he had two choices. With his playing career nearing its end, he figured he could either be resentful at being demoted to the minor leagues for what seemed likely a final time, or he could be a model for the young players. The decision he made shaped the rest of his professional hockey journey.
“You can realize that maybe you’re not going to get back to the National Hockey League and now you can help young people and young players,” Reirden said. “For whatever reason, that’s always been something I’ve loved to do.”
Reirden’s ability to develop defensemen led to his rising coaching career. This summer, he was a finalist for the head coaching gig with Calgary, and though the Flames hired Glen Gulutzan, Reirden is expected to get an opportunity soon.
An assistant coach on Barry Trotz’s Washington Capitals staff for the past two seasons, Reirden works primarily with the defensemen and the power play. But with Trotz serving as an assistant coach with Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, Reirden got promoted to associate coach, running training camp while Trotz is absent.
“He’s ready to kind of take that next step,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “He talks about us as players making the next step and adding to our game, and that’s kind of the thing that he does every day.”
Brent Burns was arguably Reirden’s first protege. During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the two were defense partners with the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros, and Burns was “a wild child a little bit,” Reirden joked. Reirden remembered how some veterans were cold to him when he was first entering the league, threatened by a young player who was likely to take their job one day.
Reirden instead opted to help Burns, who finished third in Norris Trophy voting last season with the San Jose Sharks. Reirden’s reputation for developing top-notch defensemen has continued with players such as Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and Washington’s John Carlson and Matt Niskanen.
“He’s been huge for my game, not only just teaching points with details that I could talk about all of the time, but the mental side of the game, too, building my confidence,” Niskanen said. “From when I first met him until now, each year, he’s challenged me in different areas striving to get better.”
Edmonton Oilers Coach Todd McLellan, then the coach of the Houston Aeros, noticed how Reirden seemed to connect with Burns and other young players. When Reirden got injured, McLellan suggested that he watch the game from the coaches’ box overhead and take notes, hinting at his future in the game.
Reirden formed his own coaching philosophy by adopting the qualities he appreciated most in the coaches he had worked with throughout his career. He tried to be honest like Joel Quenneville, whom Reirden played for in St. Louis.
“You always know where you stand with” Reirden, Capitals defenseman Taylor Chorney said. “If I wasn’t playing, he would always tell me why. And if I was playing well, he would always tell me, ‘You’re doing this,’ you know what I mean? There was never that time last year where I felt like I was kind of in the unknown. I think that’s important for a player: to kind of always know where you stand, so you don’t have to sit there and wonder what’s going on.”
McLellan’s stamp on Reirden was his attention to detail and his belief in unconventional methods to continually connect with his players in a long season. Reirden often meets with players individually, challenging them in different ways based on goals they’ve discussed together. When Carlson was injured last season, Reirden had him work with Washington’s video coaches to keep him engaged with the team.
His obsession with details hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Capitals who work closest with him. In a stick-on-puck drill at training camp Saturday, Reirden explained to defensemen that when extending their stick, the palm of their hand should be facing down because it keeps the blade and forehand always turned toward the puck and helps to avoid getting into a position where there’s no strength in the hand.
“It was something that I had never even thought of before,” Schmidt said. “I looked around at the guys, and yeah, no one had ever thought of that and no one had ever seen that yet. It was kind of a very, very small, ‘Who would think of that?’
When Reirden was an assistant coach under Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, he was struck by Bylsma’s constant enthusiasm and passion for hockey. Chorney said Reirden “gives you that vibe where you just want to play for him.” Reirden said Trotz is “a man of high, high integrity,” and the lesson Reirden has learned is to have a standard and not waver from it, the subject of Reirden’s speech to the Capitals the night before training camp started.
As for what will be Reirden’s defining quality as a head coach someday?
“I hope that at the end of the day, every player that I’ve coached feels like I’ve done everything in my power to make them a better player,” Reirden said. “That’s the thing that I mostly hang my hat on, that the players know that I will be there long before they get to the rink and long after they get to the rink, working on things to try to help them and help our team win and make them and our organization better.”