Much was made locally of the fact that the Washington Capitals deployed 14 different defensemen during the 2013-14 season. Less was made of the fact that eight of those 14 had fewer than 100 games worth of NHL experience at some point during the season, or that the most experienced of the 14 (Mike Green, 503 games) is still on the south side of 30 years of age.
The lion’s share of those 14 blueliners are still in the Washington organization, and even with the recent addition of veteran blueliners Brooks Orpik (703 NHL games) and Matt Niskanen (491), the Caps’ blueline trends toward the young side.
That’s where Todd Reirden comes in.
Reirden, one of the Caps’ new assistant coaches, comes to the District after four years as an assistant in Pittsburgh, where he was tasked with the Penguins’ defense and power play. Prior to that, he picked up some head coaching experience at the AHL level.
“I’m excited about the opportunity,” says Reirden. “I didn’t look into any other options; this was the only one I looked into and it was by design. With [head coach] Barry [Trotz] joining the Caps, I knew that he was a great person to help the Caps to get to the next level here. When he contacted me and asked for permission from Pittsburgh to speak with me and they allowed me to, I immediately thought it was going to be a great fit for me to be able to come and work with the defense, help out the power play and be a part of a veteran staff.
“I can learn and get better, but most importantly it’s a staff that can help this team get to its ultimate goal and that is winning a Stanley Cup.”
It’s been a while since the Caps had an assistant coach in charge of their defense with a résumé that reads like Reirden’s. It’s been more than a decade, in fact. Back in 2003-04, the Caps had Randy Carlyle in that role. Carlyle was a former NHL player (and Norris Trophy winner) who had prior NHL experience as an assistant and prior AHL experience as a head coach.
Reirden’s NHL career of 183 games was spread over five seasons with four teams, but his professional career spanned a dozen seasons spent playing in six leagues on two continents.
“It just heightens your chances of being able to find common ground with a player,” says Reirden of his diverse body of playing and coaching experience. “If it was in Pittsburgh and we trade for Marcel Goc, then I’m able to talk to him about my time that I spent in Germany and that’s an easy way to start building relationships with players, which is really what assistant coaches’ responsibilities are, building a relationship with young players and letting them know that you’re in this spot to help them improve and help them get to their ultimate goal and that’s winning a championship in this league.”
Speaking of championships, there’s that old cliché about defense winning championships. Washington surrendered 229 goals against last season, finishing 21st in the NHL in that department for the second time in three seasons. That sort of defensive largesse is not conducive to winning championships.
The Caps improved their personnel and their experience level with the additions of Orpik and Niskanen last week, but they’re also banking on Reirden’s proven ability to make each of the defensemen better individually.
Reirden plans on doing exactly that in Washington. Literally.
“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,” says Reirden. “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 hey 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.”
Reirden helped make Kris Letang into a Norris Trophy candidate during his years in Pittsburgh. He helped make an Olympian out of Paul Martin. He helped Orpik transition from a third-pair to a second-pair defenseman, and helped make him one of the more important cogs on one of the best penalty killing units in the league. He helped make NHL players out of journeymen like Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy. And Reirden helped Niskanen go from playing 16-plus minutes a night to playing more than 21 per game and becoming the best-paid unrestricted free agent in the Class of 2014.
“He’s been huge,” said Niskanen to reporters on a conference call last week, when asked what Reirden has meant to his game and his career. “Four seasons ago now I got traded from Dallas along with James Neal to Pittsburgh. My career was not in a good spot at that point. Todd helped me come up with a plan to become a regular again, a regular in the lineup.
“From day one he’s been honest with me, wanted me to get better. He helped me along the way with extra video sessions, extra time after practice, he talked with he and he just built my confidence back up. He’s been a big part of why I’m where I am at today as a player in this position.”
Reirden played for some pretty good coaches during his playing days, with Jerry York, Joel Quenneville and Todd McLellan among them. Reirden played with Dan Bylsma at Bowling Green, and later coached under him at both Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh. He takes bits and pieces from each of those four coaches, as well as the experience he gained while playing alongside the likes of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis in St. Louis, when he goes about his business as an assistant coach.
“If I can trace back the way things have happened with each of those four coaches,” begins Reirden, “I’ve always been a guy who has persevered and worked and started at the bottom level.
“I was an NHL draft pick by New Jersey, but I was a walk-on at Bowling Green. I was a walk-on and had to earn a scholarship and coach York helped me do that. Obviously starting in the East Coast League and then making it to the NHL, at the time that was difficult to do. There wasn’t as much development as there is now in the [ECHL]. I’ve always hung my hat on persevering and battling through, and I think that was started by coach York.
“Obviously at the top level, working with Joel Quenneville and being on a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and working with two all-star defensemen and an MVP was great. Certainly Joel is one that I definitely use some of his drills, I definitely use some of the terms that he used. I’ve taken little bits and pieces from him.
“The way Todd McLellan dealt with the situation during the lockout year and developing young players was great. I’ve gone back and used some of the same things he used even with me, on veteran players that are in the American League that are mostly on the downside of career and how they can help out young players and be a mentor, a leader and a captain on their team. That was huge for me.
“And there’s the experience of working with Dan Bylsma for the last six years. We started working together in Wilkes-Barre and I was part of the Stanley Cup with him. After we lost to Hershey in the division final in seven games, they had me come up to Pittsburgh during the 2009 Stanley Cup run and I was on the headset during the games. The system they were using in Pittsburgh that year was the system that Dan and I created down in Wilkes-Barre. So I was able to be a big part of the next three rounds of winning that Stanley Cup and be a part of that and it was just an amazing experience to be a part of.
“And getting an opportunity to join their staff full-time up there, work with them and help develop the stable of defensemen they have there gives me a lot of confidence with the terms, the details, the habits, the practice plan, the ability to develop the culture of winning hockey games. Combine that with what I’m going to be getting here with a coach like Barry Trotz, whose résumé speaks for itself. He’s one of the top coaches in the National Hockey League and more importantly one of the top people in the National Hockey League. I’m really excited about this opportunity of joining the Caps.”
Reirden is in town this week working with the rest of the staff and the Caps’ young players at the team’s annual summer development camp. Once that’s finished, he’ll be watching video of the Caps’ cadre of defensemen, and figuring out how each will fit into the overall fabric of the team and the defensive corps.
“I’m going to watch and evaluate their game with coach Trotz and the rest of the staff and find out what role we’re going to expect each of these players to fill,” says Reirden. “Then after I’ve watched them for a little bit and have been able to evaluate, we’ll come up with a plan together to have success so that these players believe in the plan and what we’re working to accomplish. Ultimately, that’s having playoff success and going on to win a Stanley Cup. But underneath that, it’s having each individual player develop.
“It’s something I really enjoy. I have a lot of passion and drive to be able to push these guys to figure out how they can get better and everyone’s way of getting there is different I’m going to give them every tool that they need, whether that’s video or extra work before or after practice, or whether that’s working off the ice on nutrition or different ways to make them better.
“I’m fairly well aware of what they can do; I’ve seen I think all but one of them play against Pittsburgh over the years. I’m familiar from having done scouting reports on them in the past. But now I’m going to look at it from their side of things and how they’re going to fit into the system that Barry and the rest of our staff want to play.”
Sounds like a plan.