A month ago, Todd Reirden was helping the Caps get ready for a critical playoff contest, Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final series against the Vegas Golden Knights.
On Friday afternoon, the Caps named Reirden as the 18
thcoach in the team’s history. For Reirden, hired here in the District as an assistant coach and promoted to associate coach a year later, Friday’s appointment is the culmination of more than a decade in the coaching game, a decade spent building and driving toward this position.
He is more than ready for the task ahead.
Being prepared is critical component of the Reirden brand. Ask him a question about any aspect of the team or his coaching philosophy and he’s invariably ready with a thoughtful reply born from a blend of research and experience.
Most first-time NHL coaches find themselves taking over teams that are foundering or rebuilding, or some combination of both. Rare is the coach whose first job as the head guy is taking over the reins of a team less than a month after it hoisted the Stanley Cup. But that’s what Reirden is doing in Washington, and as usual, he’s done his homework.
“I’ve done lots of research already,” says Reirden, “not necessarily with this exact situation because as we’ve spoken about, this is a unique one. But I have talked about the challenge of repeating and different pitfalls can come your way. I’ve already made adjustments to our schedule, adding different things into our normal, every day routine to be able to keep this fresh and challenging and motivating.”
This unique situation came about two weeks ago when Barry Trotz – the Caps’ head coach for the last four seasons – resigned after he and the team were unable to agree on terms of a potential contract extension. In the wake of Trotz’s exit, Reirden was the obvious choice as his successor, a coach the Caps had been grooming for an eventual head coaching position somewhere in the league.
Throughout his four-year tenure here in Washington, Trotz repeatedly talked about how the organization was dedicated to developing not only players, but coaches as well.
“For me, Todd is at that point in his career where he has earned a head coaching job,” says Caps general manager Brian MacLellan. “He has put in all of the work and he has got all of the experience. It’s just a matter of seeing him behind the bench in control. I have all of the faith in the world that he can accomplish it. He is just ready to do it right now.”
thround draft choice in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Reirden walked onto the Bowling Green team as a freshman that fall, and after finishing off his four-year career there – and eventually earning a scholarship – under the legendary coach Jerry York, Reirden embarked upon a winding odyssey of a pro career, playing in 16 different cities in four different North American pro leagues – including a 183-game stretch in the NHL – before concluding his playing career with stints in the German, Danish and Austrian pro leagues.
Reirden’s coaching career has been much less nomadic; after a season as an assistant at his alma mater, he embarked upon what has been a decade as a coach at the pro level. Elevated to head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of his first season as an assistant there when Dan Bylsma was promoted to the head job in Pittsburgh in 2009, Reirden has been an assistant or associate coach in the NHL for the last eight seasons, four each in Pittsburgh and Washington.
It was during his playing career that Reirden began to lay the foundation of the coaching career that has now brought him to the pinnacle of the profession.
“I played for a lot of coaches along the way,” says Reirden. “I’ve been a lot of different places on this path, so it certainly wasn’t an easy journey. I think I tried to take things from every coach that I played for. For some reason, I’ve always been kind of drawn to that side of things [since] probably in my third or fourth year of playing as a professional. I stayed in contact with my college coach Jerry York, who is one of the best college coaches in the history of college hockey, and I’ve been fortunate to stay in contact with him. I thought he gave me the initial foundation for how to have success and develop not just hockey players, but young people.”
After finally ascending to the NHL as a player with the 1998-99 Edmonton Oilers, Reirden learned the value and the importance of communication at his second NHL stop, in St. Louis. In 1999-00, the Blues won the Presidents’ Trophy and Reirden was paired with Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Pronger for most of that season. In those days, Joel Quenneville was the Blues’ bench boss.
“Joel Quenneville was one that had a huge, huge impact on me,” says Reirden, “in how he was able to establish a winning culture and still develop players.
“I loved his approach with me. From the minute I walked in after they picked me up on waivers from the Edmonton Oilers, he was completely honest. He said, ‘This is what I have planned for you, this is what can happen, and good luck.’ It gave me a clear vision, but at the same time helped me to understand that it was in my own hands to see what I did from there.
“I liked that fact that he dealt with players with honesty. Some days it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear every day and it was a tough message, but at least I knew at the end of the day where I stood. I really have pushed that one along in my coaching career. At least the players understood where they stand. There was nothing worse as a player than going home at night and you’re staring at your ceiling fan or your bedroom light and you’re like, ‘Is he happy with me, or is he not happy with me? Am I playing tomorrow, or not? Am I on the power play?’ You waste a lot of energy and mental stress on that. Good or bad, at least I knew what my plan was going into the next day and how to go about my business. That’s been a really important one for me.”
The 1999-00 season proved to be the high point of the NHL portion of Reirden’s career, but his final North American stop as a player was crucial, too.
“Todd McLellan for me – the coach of the Edmonton Oilers now – had a big role in some of my understanding in some of the decisions that coaches make and why they make them,” recalls Reirden. “It was a unique situation that Todd and I worked together in, and that was during the strike/lockout situation [in 2004-05] and I was in Houston playing for the Aeros in the American Hockey League. It was a dual affiliate at that time between the Minnesota Wild and the [Dallas Stars] and Todd was the head coach. There was an abundance of excellent hockey players that were playing in the American Hockey League that year.”
Because of the lockout, players on entry-level deals who would have otherwise been in the NHL were parked in the AHL so they’d at least be playing the game. Reirden served as a “big brother” to many of those young NHL hopefuls, nurturing them along even though he was effectively shortening his own career in doing so.
While he was on the sideline with an injury that season, McLellan suggested that Reirden work with some of his teammates using video, and the hook was set.
“I think he was the one that first enlightened me to another way of furthering my love of the game of hockey and passion for being a part of it and the idea of making players better, how you could do it and the role I was going to have in it,” says Reirden of McLellan.
During his seasons with the Penguins and Capitals, Reirden developed a richly earned reputation for developing defensemen of all levels of skill and styles, and somehow making all of them – from those drafted in the first round to those never drafted – better. He laid out his process for me four years ago when he was first hired as a Trotz assistant.
Here’s what Reirden told me on that June day four years ago:
“I feel like my best attribute is to be able to establish the proper foundation for each player so that they understand what’s expected of them when they go on the ice. One of the things I’ve had success with in the last four years is establishing and creating a plan with each of the individual players to be able to allow them to have success within their abilities. Everybody has a different plan and has a different role and I think that all players are created differently. And I think that our defensive group is going to play a certain way.
“But certainly Karl Alzner adds something different than John Carlson does to your defensive group, and that’s different from what Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green do. So I think it’s important that they each have a plan of attack for their success. All of those are different types of plans, but that’s what I really take pride in, seeing where each player is at, helping to develop a foundation for their own game and creating a plan for them to have individual success. And most importantly, creating a plan for our defensive corps to improve and get better on a daily basis.”
Those individual plans have produced excellent results over the years, and that process will be extended to the rest of the team now that Reirden is the head coach.
The Caps are only two months away from the start of the defense of their Cup title; they’ll be participating in a rookie tournament in Florida just days after Labor Day, and they’ve still got some offseason business to attend to, including the hiring of a couple of assistant coaches to work alongside Reirden.
“I’m just really concerned about getting some people around me that enjoy coming to the rink,” says Reirden, “that love to work and want to get better – not only to get better themselves, but are people that can challenge me to get better. I still consider myself a project as well as a coach, and I want to grow and improve every day so it’s important for me to get someone that can improve me and help make me better.
“I think that the work ethic that our staff had here over the last four years was unmatched, and I feel like the players going into games felt like they had an advantage, and that is something that I have always been proud of and trying to make sure that nothing surprises our players when they go into a game.”
Aside from the promotion of Scott Murray from goalie coach at Hershey to the same post with the Caps last season, the Caps have had the same staff for the last four seasons, and they built an experienced and hard-working outfit. Reirden wants to make the work ethic of his staff an example for the entire organization to follow.
“Having been a part of that with the defensemen and doing pre-scout information for the players and working on different situations with the power play and five-on-six at the end of games, I’ve been able to talk to a lot of players – not just the defensemen – through the season and they got a little bit of a taste of what goes into the work behind the scenes,” says Reirden. “They have a really good understanding of the fact that we put a lot of time and effort into it, but more so than that, they’re confident that they have all the information that they need to start a game.
“That’s something that I want to continue and it’s going to be huge for me. We’re not going to be outworked, and we’re going to set the work ethic for our entire organization with the coaching. I’ll continue to try to find the right people to do that – people that are passionate about it; passionate about making our team better, passionate about making our players better, passionate about how they act within the community and how they conduct themselves, and people that can continue to push our organization forward here in the near future.”
It’s a short summer to be sure, but that’s the goal of every single team every single September, to have a short summer the following year. Reirden is raring to go already; listening to him talk you get the sense that he’d be ready if the Caps were opening the season and raising the Stanley Cup banner on July 4. As it is, he’s got three months to prepare for that reality, and to make a great team even greater.
“It’s a unique situation that we’re going through here,” reiterates Reirden. “It’s not very often that you have a situation where as a new coach, you’re coming in and taking over the defending Stanley Cup champs. So it is something I’ve spent some time with and have done some research with in preparing for this opportunity, and it’s a different opportunity that [doesn’t] happen a lot.
“When you’re going in after a failure or something doesn’t work out right, then you’re looking to make a lot of changes in things that didn’t work, obviously. But this is a situation where things did work, and systematically and the ways that we did our video and prepared our players and established our relationships and the types of things that we did, those were things that were decided upon as a staff.
“I thought that Barry Trotz did a phenomenal job of delegating responsibility to each of the staff members and allowing us to have a lot of say so in those areas, but also be involved in decisions as a group. So the majority of the things that we were doing as a team over the past year that allowed us to have that success were things that were decided upon as a staff. Yes, Barry had final say so, but it was stuff that was created by our staff – assistant coaches and video coaches coming together with ideas – and coming up with a game plan that we would present to the players, and even strategies on how to improve individual players and force them to continue to grow depending on their age and where they’re at with their own development.”
While most first-year coaches would be eager to stamp their own brand or imprint upon their new charges, Reirden realizes that he still has a championship-caliber team here even after a few offseason losses of few critical components of his team’s Cup champion roster.
“For me, taking the next step and trying to put my own identity on it is probably not going to be as bold as a complete overhaul of changes because of the success we had,” says Reirden. “But there are going to be some things that you’ve seen bits and pieces of through my roles and responsibilities that will be taking shape with the whole group.
“I think the idea that we’re going to be passionate and not outworked will be a large component of how we move forward here. The fact that the preparation will be unmatched by any other team in the league in terms of what we’re going to do and the idea that you come to the rink every day with the idea that you’re going to improve and get a little bit better has been a key one not just for our players, but for our staff as well.”
“The challenge I feel is going to be to be able to create an environment where players love to come to work every day, love to be a part [of the team], love to be together. We’ve been very fortunate that a lot of our players that we had the potential to lose through free agency have decided to come back and stay with our club. That’s exciting, and many of them have taken pay cuts to do it because they want to be a part of this group.
“Now it’s my job to make sure that that group is challenged differently every day. When you have the same group back, you already have developed some chemistry in your room, but now how do I take that chemistry and push it to the next level and the new challenges that are in front of them? And that’s being creative in terms of how we’re practicing and how we’re preparing in different film sessions and different things that I’ve already planned on the schedule for different travel setups, and to keep things fresh with the same returning group.”
Everywhere the Caps travel in 2018-19, they’ll do so as defending Cup champs, and he other 30 NHL clubs will be more than motivated to knock them off. They’ll have to deal with the hangover of a short summer ahead of another arduous 82-game regular season grind, and they’ll have numerous obstacles and challenges not yet known. But many of the men responsible for this team’s success over the last four seasons remain, and Reirden certainly believes he can amplify the chemistry and standard for success that’s been established here in the District.
“I’m coming into a situation where we’ve had success, and we’ve been able to get the biggest prize in the game in our hands, and we did it a certain way,” he says. “There are going to be many things that stay the same, but there are going to be some things that I have to be cognizant of with a team that’s going to be repeating.
“I want to create an environment where players are going to continue to be challenged with new ideas and new ways to improve their games, but I still want to create an environment where they’re enjoying coming to the rink. In the same breath I want to make sure that they’re held accountable to a certain standard because that’s what’s expected from our team, and it will allow us to continue move forward here with as little disruption as possible, but just the voice at the end of the day being a little bit different. I’m extremely excited about the chance.”