With a Stanley Cup-winning roster almost completely in tact (to say nothing of the overwhelming majority of the club that had won the Presidents’ Trophy the two previous seasons) and four seasons spent training under one of the winningest coaches in hockey history, Todd Reirden was set up for success when he took over behind the Capitals bench at the start of last season.
With sky-high expectations, a squad full of veterans who had finally reached the pinnacle of the sport (and celebrated accordingly), and huge shoes to fill following a somewhat acrimonious break-up, Todd Reirden was also set up to disappoint.
As Colin Campbell put it, “You can only tie. You can’t do better. Tying’s pretty good. You have to win a Cup just tie your performance from a year before.”
Campbell would know, having gone from Mike Keenan’s assistant on the 1994 Cup Champion Rangers team to head coach of the 1994-95 Rangers after Keenan and the Rangers couldn’t agree to a new contract.
Or ask Dave Lewis, who had the simultaneously enviable and unenviable task of taking over for Scotty Bowman in Detroit after their 2002 Cup win:
“Besides replacing a legend, to be equal, you have to win the Stanley Cup, so it was a big challenge,” Lewis said. “I was looking forward to the challenge, actually, of taking over a team, taking over a team that won a Stanley Cup and try to accomplish the same thing. I knew it would be very difficult.”
None of Campbell, Lewis or Reirden “tied” in their first year as head coach; all three disappointed, to varying degrees - Campbell’s Blueshirts posted a fourth-place finish in the Division, Lewis’s Central-champ Wings got swept in the first round by the Ducks, and Reirden followed up a Metro title with a first-round playoff flame-out. Campbell lasted a few seasons in New York, Lewis two in Motown, and Todd Reirden’s tenure in D.C. is... to be determined.
Coaching in the NHL is extraordinarily challenging under any circumstances. But these three coaches not only replaced three of the most accomplished bench bosses in NHL history, they also did so having been elevated from their respective roles as assistant coaches. And that can be a particularly challenging transition.
Think about the best coaches in the game today - guys like Quenneville, Sullivan, Cooper, Babcock, Boudreau, and, yes, Trotz. None of those guys had success moving from assistant to head coach with the same team; most didn’t even have that chance, and there might be a reason for that. It’s a rare opportunity in and of itself because typically a non-interim/mid-season coaching change involves cleaning house entirely, not just removing the general and elevating a lieutenant.
But it also typically necessitates a pretty drastic change in the relationship a coach has with his players - going from “good cop” to “bad cop.” That may be a bit trite, but the trope exists for a reason... and boy, does it exist:
The head coach is the disciplinarian, the hard-ass, the authority figure, while the assistant is more the players’ advocate and friend. As Dave Lewis put it:
“Being an assistant coach, you communicate differently, you just organize things differently,” Lewis said. “[What y]ou can’t do is you can’t change your personality. The players know you as an assistant coach. They know you as a human being and how you react to things at an assistant level. So I guess the biggest adjustment is how to react to things as a head coach. ... When you’re a head coach, everything falls on your shoulders.”
It’s not hard to see how the shift from one role to the other might be a difficult one when dealing with the same group of players, even though sometimes it might seem like a good idea at the time:
Yeo believes he can learn from [previous] failure and learn from working under Hitchcock for a year. “I’m not looking to be a decent coach,” he said. “I’m looking to be great coach.”
Yeo can take his time getting to know the players and what makes them tick. As the associate coach, he can play good cop to Hitchcock’s famous bad cop routine and build up some equity with the boys.
“Even though bringing that intensity, I’m able to bring a fun atmosphere to the rink,” Yeo said. “I think that I’m composed, I’m confident, but I think I bring positive energy every time I come to the rink, and I care very much about my players.”
It... wasn’t a good idea. The Blues fired Ken Hitchcock early, Mike Yeo coached one full season (missing the playoffs) and was fired early in the 2018-19 from the team that went on to win the Cup (interestingly enough under elevated-assistant coach Craig Berube, perhaps the rule-proving exception).
Typically, though, it goes something like this, as relayed by former NHL netminder Jamie MacLennan.
All of which brings us back to Todd Reirden. Back at the outset of Reirden’s tenure, our pal Alex Prewitt wrote a great piece that’s worth a revisit. Of note, this passage:
“[I]t’s fair to wonder how this ethos translates.”
Later in the piece, then-Cap Matt Niskanen says, “He’s the boss, but he doesn’t have to come off like that all the time.”
Maybe not. But he probably does have to come off like that some of the time. And maybe he does. Maybe the types of problems that we’d typically associate with these “elevated assistants” - things like accountability, discipline and such - aren’t the same problems that are plaguing the Caps at present.
But maybe they are. And maybe they can be overcome. Regardless, the transition from assistant coach to head coach for the same team is an added challenge on top of an already challenging job - where “good cop” and “bad cop” roles don’t matter nearly as much as “good coach” and “bad coach” results.