Championship teams are hard to keep together. Whether it’s players leaving for bigger contracts, veterans retiring or staffers jetting for more lucrative opportunities, the likelihood of a carbon copy from year to year is nearly impossible.
An obvious cog for any sports team is the head coach, and though it’s unusual for a championship organization to hire a new leader months after tasting absolute victory, the Capitals are now in the midst of this transition.
Out is Barry Trotz, the man who directed the team to last year’s Stanley Cup championship, as he resigned shortly after hoisting the trophy earlier this summer. While the team could have rocked the boat and brought in an outside candidate, the front office instead opted for continuity, promoting former assistant coach Todd Reirden. The 47-year-old was given a unique set of circumstances surrounding his first National Hockey League head coaching gig.
“This is an extremely unique one,” Reirden tells me in his office adorned with more Capitals gear than a stadium gift shop. “More often than not, you see an assistant coach take over because it went poorly. In this situation where you’ve won the ultimate prize in your sport, it’s obviously different. I had no ill will or misgivings to Barry. It was his choice not to return. It had nothing to do with my situation.”
Officially hired on June 29, Reirden touched base with Trotz to thank him for the opportunity. Four years ago, Trotz hired him as the assistant coach, bringing him into the organization where he’s now charged to lead.
“It’s been a real comfortable situation thus far,” he says. “Two years ago, I ran the training camp. So this is not new to me as far as where we’re at right now – only thoughts of excitement and opportunity for this group, who for the most part is returning.”
Those returning include legend and Stanley Cup MVP Alex Ovechkin, forward T.J. Oshie and defenseman John Carlson, to name a few.
“Every season is a little bit different, so it’s tough to totally forecast where your team is going to have success or [what they’ll] struggle with,” Reirden says. “[Because of] what we were able to do last year, there won’t be a lot of changes. We’re just trying to emphasize the speed with some of our young players.”
One group of people happy to see him instituted as head coach was the players, who had firsthand experience as he helped guide the team to a championship last season. Though he has a different role, the team believes he can help them achieve a title repeat.
“First of all, he’s very smart,” says veteran center Nicklas Backstrom. “He’s very good at adjusting during the game and making sure you’re screwing with the other team a bit, which I think is positive. People don’t notice that. He’s alert. He’s on top of his game, every game. That’s what you need in this league.”
Along with his mind for the game, Reirden is a great communicator, which is something he’s using to help the Capitals avoid
a title hangover.
“My strengths are in communication and developing relationships with the players,” he says. “I was in constant contact with them and let them know a clear vision of what I expected the camp to look like. They’ve all come back in excellent shape and ready to work. The response from the veteran players and everyone right through is a high energy level and an even higher conditional level than in the past. You have to communicate with the players, you have to talk to them, you have to connect with them. They have to be able to come to you about good things, bad things, whatever it is, and you have to have them trust you and believe in you.”
With a new coach comes new philosophies and tendencies, which carries the possibility of a slow start. However, with Reirden being on staff for the past few years, players aren’t worried about the prospect.
“Potentially,” right defenseman Matt Niskanen says of Reirden’s coaching style. “You get used to a coach’s tendencies – his feel for how he runs the bench, runs your scheme, your practices. So far in camp, there’s been the same types of drills just to get people moving again because everyone’s familiar with them. But we’re going to start filtering new stuff, tweaking the system and details as we go. It should be a pretty seamless transition.”
Though it’s early, everything out of Capitals camp sounds so far, so good. And as the season opener against the Boston Bruins on October 3 approaches, all Reirden and the team can do is put their heads down, get to work and enjoy the journey.
“My goal doesn’t have anything to do with a set number of wins or losses, or this or that,” Reirden says. “I want to create an environment that’s challenging for our players. I want them to enjoy coming to work every day. They need to enjoy coming to the rink and being challenged that way to get back to what we accomplished last year.”
Don’t miss the Caps’ home opener on Wednesday, October 3 at 7:30 p.m. against the Bruins. For more information on the team and their 2018-2019 season, visit www.nhl.com/capitals.
Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; www.nhl.com/capitals