The season in review for a head coach is tough to quantify - so as has become the tradition, we break down the 2018-19 campaign for rookie bench boss Todd Reirden in roundtable style. Feel free to weigh in on his debut in the comments.
Q1: As Reirden made the shift from assistant coach to head coach, what differences (if any) did you notice about the team’s systems overall from when Barry Trotz was behind the bench?
J.P.: There really wasn’t much. It was largely the same roster and they got strikingly similar outcomes… except when it mattered most. Anecdotally, the breakouts looked sloppier and/or generally worse, neutral-zone play (particularly from one of the top-two centers not named Nick Backstrom) suffered a bit, and the power play seemed to lack some of its familiar bite (and “the slingshot” needs to be slingshotted into the sun), but, again, the results were pretty similar.
I talked with Adam pretty extensively about my thoughts on Reirden on Japers’ Rink Radio, and they still boil down to two general areas of concern. First, I thought he was fairly handily outcoached by Rod Brind’Amour in the ‘Canes series. Playoff coaching, in my mind, is markedly different than regular season coaching in that the focus is less on your systems and more focused on game-planning to counter your opponent’s schemes. Reirden’s systems - Trotz’s systems - may have been (were) perfectly fine in a regular season bubble, but Brind’Amour had answers for them (particularly on the breakouts from the defensive zone) and Reirden never really effectively countered those countermeasures. Playoff coaching is much more of a continuous act/react scenario than the regular-season is, and Reirden never quite got the Caps to where they needed to be on the “react” part. Chalk it up to inexperience… we hope.
The second point is related. Barry Trotz’s Cup-winning coaching staff featured not only the Jack Adams winner at the helm, but at least one future head coach in Reirden (and a very likely second in Lane Lambert) and one of the greatest goalie coaches to ever grace the sport in Mitch Korn. That’s a lot of brain power with very specific roles, and it worked - over the four years they were in D.C., no team in the League amassed more points or won (or played in) more playoff games. Reirden’s coaching staff was less experienced and, I think it’s fair to say, less successful. Scott Arniel has “NHL head coach” on his resume, but Reid Cashman - who was responsible for the defense, replacing Reirden in that role - seemed a bit out of his depth. Going from what was more or less a “dream team” behind the bench to a greener, less battle tested crew didn’t do the Caps any favors… but we probably knew that would be the case coming in, didn’t we?
Peerless: The differences I saw were in execution and, for lack of a better term, “swagger.” They Caps looked like a bit of a knock off of what they were in 2017-18 for stretches. And, especially on the power play, they lacked that “here it is, try to stop it” attitude that shone through a lot of the time in 2017-18. To torture another metaphor, I might be able to play the notes to the “Moonlight Sonata,” but no one is going to mistake me for a concert pianist. Trotz was years – decades even – in the making as an NHL bench manager. This was Todd Reirden’s first spin around the NHL track.
As a game manager, I agree with J.P. that he was outcoached by Rod Brind’Amour in the Carolina series. That is what I find a bit confounding, since: a) the Caps were a more talented and deeper team, and b) Brind’Amour was himself a rookie NHL coach. At a basic level, Brind’Amour coached “flexible,” adapting to what the Caps denied or allowed, while Reirden coached “stiff,” maintaining his confidence/reliance on what worked in the past with this group. This was especially telling on the road, where a coach cannot dictate matchups. Last season, the Caps were 10-3 on the road in the postseason (3-0 in the opening round against Columbus), while this year they went 0-3 in Carolina and scored only three goals in the process (Alex Ovechkin getting two of them).
A head coach does not act in a vacuum. The Caps lost a ton of coaching memory when Barry Trotz, assistant Lane Lambert, and goaltending coach/director Mitch Korn went to Long Island after last season. As a result, the Caps might have promoted Reirden into a position out of his comfort zone (the jury is still out on that) and had to fill in with personnel new to the organization. It just was not a formula for repeat success, for this season anyway.
Jason: I don’t have the privilege of being inside the locker room during games, but thanks to certain all-access footage from television shows, we know that Barry Trotz was a no-nonsense tough-as-nails S.O.B. who knew how to sling a four-letter word a light a fire under 22 underperforming asses.
Reirden is a nice guy. Like, a really nice guy. I just wonder how mean he can get, and whether that’s mean enough to put the fear of God into a room full of champions.
Rob: Don’t have much to add to the above (though how much was Korn really going to help avoid that disaster of a game 7 performance in the blue paint?), but would say that it sure looked like the defensive structure wasn’t there like it was under Trotz. Rierden may have tried to give the skilled forwards more leeway to go play offense, or maybe Cashman wasn’t quite up to the task, but if nothing else the Caps were typically structured and disciplined in their own end under Trotz, at a team level. There were also some individual defensive performances that were huge dropoffs, and frankly head-scratchers, notably Niskanen and Kuznetsov (who went from Datsyuk potential to roughly the worst defensive forward in the league).
Becca: I think I agree with Peerless here in that there was some swagger missing from the team at points throughout the season - despite the fact that they came into this season as the reigning champs - and in the postseason. I’ll also agree that to some extent, Brind’Amour was able to outmaneuver Reirden in the playoffs (although to that point I’d make two counterpoints: 1) I’m not sure that’s the case if the Caps have a healthy Michael Kempny on the blueline and 2) he also seemed to be able to outmaneuver the guy Reirden replaced - and with even better results - so I’m not sure it was him so much as the weirdly scrappy underdog team he was in charge of).
Q2: Looking at Reirden’s roster management over the course of the season and postseason, which players do you think were used correctly? Which players do you think were under/over-used or put in the wrong situations?
J.P.: I didn’t take much issue with how Reirden deployed his troops. Sure, I’d have liked to have seen Jonas Siegenthaler and Dmitrij Jaskin play more, but those are a couple of guys on the fringes. Other players that should’ve gotten more ice time frankly deserved what they got (I’m looking at you, Andre and Devante). And I’m not sure how much more from Chandler Stephenson I need to see.
The one additional thing I’d note here is on Jaskin. While it’s easy to dismiss the lack of playing time for a guy who, at best, was going to be a fourth-liner with very limited offensive upside, I’d look more at what it may signal in the bigger picture - here’s a guy that the GM went out and acquired, only to see the head coach barely give him a look, and yet he stuck on the roster for the whole season, even as Washington Capitals Legend Devante Smith-Pelly was waived. It’s not a Martin Erat-sized red flag, but it may be an indication that the coach and GM aren’t necessarily in lock-step.
Becca: I actually liked the way Reirden used his players in most situations. I’d agree that I wanted to see much more of Siegenthaler and Jaskin (and a LOT less of Stephenson, particularly in the playoffs) but I thought he did a good job of adjusting his lineup when needed and putting guys in relatively good positions to succeed.
Peerless: Looking at ice times year-over-year generally, Reirden seemed to play the top players (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson) a bit more (Kuznetsov was a notable exception), but not significantly so. Defense was interesting. Carlson and Kempny got more ice time, Orlov and Niskanen less in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. In the postseason, the big change in ice time was with Orpik, who averaged more ice time this postseason than last. Of the five Caps defensemen to dress in the playoffs both last season and this, he and Carlson were the only two to average more ice time this postseason than last. Orlov, Niskanen, and Djoos averaged less ice time. The changes were not that great, but one might question whether the lack of change in workload had an effect on player performance in the postseason after a short off-season and the usual grind of a regular season. It speaks to something to think about going forward; it might be nice to see the average ice times for Ovechkin and Backstrom be pared back under 20 minutes a night after averaging more than that the last two seasons.
Jason: I think it’s hard to find too much wrong with Reirden’s roster composition, outside of some nitpicking at the fourth line or third pair. But let’s pick some nits, shall we?
Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd should both get sweaters every night, in my opinion. On the other wing, instead of Devante Smith-Pelly, Dmitrij Jaskin, or any of the crop of maybe-babies in Hershey (like Nathan Walker and Shane Gersich), Reirden stuck fiercely to Chandler Stephenson, he of fleet fleet but stone hands. That was, potentially, a mistake.
On defense, I can’t fault him for playing Jonas Siegenthaler over (my admitted favorite) Madison Bowey, rendering Bowey expendable trade bait for Detroit in service of acquiring Nick Jensen. Siegenthaler played his dang way into an NHL job, and I can’t fault him for that. If Christian Djoos returns to full operational health and performance by next season, it will be a fairly clean report card for Coach Reirden.
Rob: No real complaints with player usage. Jaskin would probably have helped solidify the bottom six and PK in the pre-Hagelin days but I don’t think he was a real difference maker. One interesting point, building on my prior answer, is that at one point in the season someone asked Rierden what Jaskin had to do to stay in the lineup and the answer was basically “bury his chances.” Trotz probably would have been more than happy to keep a defensive stalwart in the lineup absent any real scoring, so maybe this is another indication that Rierden’s focus is swinging a bit from the defensive zone to the offensive zone.
Q3: Grade Reirden’s overall performance in his first season as a head coach.
J.P.: I’ll go ahead and give him a B-minus/C-plus. He had a literal championship roster - with the hangover that comes with it - and kept them on task to win a competitive division as a rookie head coach. That’s good! But he got outmaneuvered in the playoffs by a coach with inferior talent. That’s bad! For me, the jury is very much still out on Todd Reirden as head coach, and 2019-20 should tell us a lot more than this past season did as to what the future holds for Reirden as Caps bench boss.
Peerless: Todd Reirden is going to suffer in comparison with Barry Trotz because, well, Stanley Cup. On one level, that’s fair, because Reirden inherited almost the same lineup that won the Cup in 2018. But on another fundamental level, it is not fair. The NHL is not kind to rookie coaches. Since 1927, when the NHL became the sole competitor for the Cup, 11 rookie coaches have led their teams to a Stanley Cup championship, but only four of them did so in the post-expansion era (since 1967). And an interesting history it is in that post-1967 era. Three of the four coaches who did it did so for the Montreal Canadiens (Claude Ruel in 1969, Al McNeill, who succeeded Ruel, in 1971, and Jean Perron in 1986). The only rookie coach to do it who did not do it for Montreal in the post-expansion era was Dan Byslma, who led the Penguins to the Cup in 2009. McNeill and Bylsma did it as in-season replacements in their respective rookie seasons. And, it is not as if winners among the rookies went on to greater glory as a group. Of the 11 rookies to win a Stanley Cup, only Toe Blake ever won another. He went on to win seven more Cups, eight in all, all with Montreal. So, if I have to grade Reirden, I have to do so with some acknowledgment of just how hard it is to win as a rookie. From me, he gets a “B” for the regular season, a “C+” for the postseason.
Jason: Ahhhhh, erm, well…..In school, you don’t just get ONE grade; you get scored by classes. So that’s what I’m going to do here.
- Control of the Locker Room: Todd is pretty well loved by his players. As J.P. mentioned, he had the task of keeping a championship team focused the following year, and he essentially managed it. B+
- Media Friendliness: He’s great with reporters, so selfishly, I appreciate that. He gives thorough, tactics-centered answers when people ask why something is or isn’t working, and he’ll give you fun, light-hearted anecdotes when someone is writing a feature on a player. Often smiley, usually cheery. B+
- GM Relations: Ah, well. Remember when Barry Trotz refused to play defenseman Jakub Jerabek, even though he was GM Brial MacLellan’s shiny new free agent toy? Well, remember a guy named Dmitrij Jaskin? C+
- Strategy and Tactics: If I have to watch one more cotdamn SLINGSHOT on the powerplay I’m going to scream. And getting out-coached by Rod “the Bod” Brind’Amour ain’t the best look, either. C
Rob: It’s rare that teams get to bring back virtually their entire championship roster, but the Caps were able to do that this year. Yeah, losing Beagle hurt in some particular situations, but you can’t really put too much on a lost 4C. Grubauer had a great year and helped put them in position to make the playoff run, but they won the division again without him. It was obviously going to be Holtby’s net and nobody was going to play Grubauer in Game 7 anyway so his loss wasn’t substantial. In fact, with the addition of Jensen and Hagelin, and the development of Wilson and Vrana, you could argue the team this year was more talented on paper than the team that won the damn thing. Teams also usually suffer the Cup Hangover after winning, but this team never really did (unless their historic off-season partying helped delay the hangover until roughly the holidays through the all star break), and Rierden helped guide them to the top seed in the toughest division in the league.
Getting out-coached in the first round was a tough pill to swallow and is definitely the biggest strike against him. There are a couple mitigating factors, namely the injury to Kempny (the team looked its best during the brief period when Kempny and Jensen were both in the lineup), and the fact that the 2017-18 playoffs saw Evgeny Kuznetsov, best player in the world, and the 2018-19 season and playoffs saw Evgeny Kuznetsov, guy who was on the roster. How much blame Rierden bears for Kuznetsov’s performance we cannot know, but figuring Kuznetsov out would be the number one item on his summer to-do list if I were writing it. Overall I would say B / B-minus.
Becca: I think he underperformed a bit in the playoffs but overall was able to keep the team from going through too many extremes, led them out of their little pre-ASG break slump and coached them to another division title. That’s not nothing, and hopefully after his rookie outing he’s learned some things to make the team even better next season. I’m going to go with a solid B.