It was announced June 1st that Washington Capitals assistant coach Reid Cashman will leave his position to take the head coaching position at Dartmouth college. And not even two days prior, an analytic focused Twitter user JFresh released his “Team Card” for the Washington Capitals. Basically it’s a card that shows the team’s season in analytical charts and numbers. I highly recommend following and reading all of JFresh’s content; he uses Evolving Wild and Hockey Viz data to create simple and very informative visuals. But at the very least look through the breakdown of the Capitals.
After looking over this card, none of is too surprising. Fans would know from watching that the Capitals have a dominant offense, lackluster powerplay, not very good 5v5 defense, and yet one of the best (actually THE best according to JFresh’s WAR model) penalty kills in the game. But what really stood out was what JFresh’s numbers said about head coach Todd Reirden.
Reirden has been under fire this season, even by yours truly, for not getting the team to where they should be in terms of play, at least defensively (19th in Expect Goals Against/60 and 18th in goals against per game). But according to JFresh’s numbers Reirden’s system impact says the Capitals have the fourth ranked offense and third best defense. In fact, the team’s WAR (wins above replacement) timeline has improved over the Barry Trotz system since Reirden became head coach.
To add to that, using HockeyViz coaching impact tool, among coaches that were with their team this past season, Reirden was ranked second in defensive impact (somehow being nearly tripled by Ralph Krueger in Buffalo) and the fourth best offensive impact (behind Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina, Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh, and DJ Smith in Ottawa). That kind of solidifies that maybe the defensive woes in Washington aren’t on Reirden’s hands, or at least his system isn’t.
So if Reirden’s system is built well why is the Capitals defense so poor? JFresh suggested it could be the players, but we saw what most of these same players did defensively under Trotz. This prompted me to ask JFresh if assistant coaches could be responsible for the poor play. His response? “Absolutely”.
To this point, it’s very interesting according to JFresh’s model that the Capitals penalty kill WAR is ranked first in the league yet their 5v5 defense ranked negatively as 19th. How could a team be so good defensively down a man but so poor when at evens?
This is something that came to mind back in February:
With penalty killing being so strong and the defense being so leaky at evens, I started to wonder if there is something maybe amiss with Cashman’s coaching. So I went looking for more evidence.
Consider is the play of Nick Jensen. Jensen played 75% of his season with the Detroit Red Wings in 2018-2019, before being traded to Washington. While in Detroit, Jensen was used as their top pairing shut down guy and he played extremely well. Because Jensen did so well in Detroit it was expected that when Jensen was moved over to Washington he would be even better. He would be playing on one of the top teams in the league (fourth worst to fourth best); he would be asked to handle less responsibility (85th percentile TOI vs. Elite to 54th); and would have one of the better partners in the NHL (73rd percentile Quality. But alas, he hasn’t even hit his same level of play that he did in Detroit.
Even looking at Jensen’s isolation from this year, his 5v5 defense was average (after being -6.6 last season where he spent most of his time in Detroit) but his penalty kill isolation was fantastic. In fact, he was the best on the Capitals on the penalty kill. The closest to Jensen’s -14 was Dmitry Orlov’s -7. So Jensen was thriving on the penalty kill, under a different coach.
Two other cases to consider are Radko Gudas and Matt Niskanen. Gudas was an analytical darling that started the season well with the Capitals but went down hill as the season went on. Niskanen was a great player in Washington until his first year under Cashman when he took a hard dive in his defensive numbers. He was dealt to Philadelphia last summer and has had a great rebound season for the Flyers even though he started in the defensive end more and spent more time against higher level competition than he did with the Capitals last year.
Let’s add up the evidence: 1) Reirden system looks very good in the numbers. 2) The Capitals penalty kill is top tier but their 5v5 defense is poor. 3) There are a handful of players that are not playing as well when on worse teams last year or are playing better on worse teams this year. Looking at all of that says a lot about Cashman and his defensive responsibilities.
This isn’t supposed to be a hit piece on Cashman at all but this could be a case of just too much too fast. Cashman had just two years of professional coaching experience in the American Hockey League before he was thrown into the NHL. And not to just to any team, but a top tier team that just won the Stanley Cup; that cannot be easy at all. Both Sullivan and Cassidy were head coaches for NHL teams for two years before being let go. It took Sullivan 10 years to make it back to be a NHL head coach and Cassidy 12 years to do the same, and now they are some of the best coaches out there. It would not be surprising to see Cashman make a good NHL coaching career in the future.
The question now is who will replace Cashman. An easy answer would be Brooks Orpik. The last year he’s been in the Player Development Department for the Capitals, specifically working with the young Hershey Bears defensemen. The upside to Orpik as assistant coach is he knows the players in the Capitals locker room, they respect the hell out of him, and he knows the system. Add those together and it should make some seamless communication between him and the players. The downside is Orpik has no professional coaching experience, even less than Cashman. Does Orpik’s knowledge of the players and system outweigh the lack of experience?
Another option is Scott Allen who was added to the Bears coaching staff last summer to focus on the defense and penalty kill and he did stellar in that position. Last season the Bears let in the third least amount of goals and their penalty kill ranked second. Allen has over 20 years professional experience, spending the last two years with Arizona Coyotes where they tied for the best penalty kill and let in the fifth least amount of goals before he came over; and the Coyotes are not a team brimming with talent. His experience would make a great fit with the Capitals.
An out of left field addition could be Bruce Boudreau. Everyone remembers Boudreau for coaching the Young Guns in the Alexander Ovechkin era. They were fun to watch to say the least, but they always got lit up defensively. Since then Boudreau has coached in Anaheim and Minnesota and adapted his game. He was let go by the Wild during the 2019-2020 season but in his last three years with the Wild they ranked fist in limiting scoring chances against in the NHL. Boudreau is incredibly smart, experienced, and probably deserves a couple Stanley Cups (he’s had some of the worst goaltending luck in playoff history). Boudreau should definitely be head coaching somewhere but if all he can find is assistant work it’s feasible he ends up in Washington and it would be a huge add.
Peter Loviolette has over a decade of head coaching experience and a Stanley Cup to go along with it. He’s been known to grind his teams down with hard nosed and rough talk but his defensive impacts through out his career have always been very strong. Like Allen, his experience would go a long way.
There are 100 other names out that aren’t worth guessing at, but one of those four would make sense.
Cashman departing to take on a head coaching job at the college ranks sounds like it will be good for both the Capitals and Cashman. He will be able to get more experience, while the Capitals could bring in another voice that could help communicate Reirden’s strong system. Now it’s a matter of finding a good fit for the Capitals defensively, round out there game, and continue to be a top team in the league.