Back-to-back early playoff exits were enough to make the Washington Capitals realize that they had made a mistake.
In the two seasons since the team promoted top assistant Todd Reirden instead of giving Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz a raise, the Caps have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. On Sunday, the team fired Reirden days after losing their first-round playoff series to Trotz’s New York Islanders in five games, and moved toward hiring their seventh coach since Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL.
Whom will they consider for that job? Where will Reirden land next? Were there any other issues with Reirden in D.C.? And how much remorse do they have for letting Trotz leave? Let’s dive in.
Was this move a surprise?
Emily Kaplan: The firing came just three days after the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs, which hints that this was premeditated. There had been whispers for the past few weeks that if Washington couldn’t get past the first round, Reirden would be done. The fact that it was an embarrassing, five-game exit to the Barry Trotz-led Islanders sealed his fate.
It is strange to see a team pivot on a coach this quickly. Reirden had been on the job for only two seasons, and compiled a 89-46-16 record. That’s usually a good enough mark to stick around, especially after a pandemic-disrupted season. What’s more: The Caps were absolutely bullish on Reirden when they promoted him, following the ugly Trotz divorce. Reirden was the only candidate Caps management interviewed in 2018. Players campaigned for Reirden to get the job, citing continuity with the system, and he had the M.O. as being strong with development.
Here’s perhaps the biggest reason it’s surprising: Fair or not, the Capitals have a reputation as being cheap when it comes to coaches’ contracts. They spend to the cap on players, but try to save elsewhere — look no further than the Trotz situation. So while the Caps’ spending habits will inevitably come up as we discuss hiring a next coach, also consider: Reirden had two more years remaining on his contract. Capitals ownership will be paying for a new coach’s contract, on top of paying Reirden not to coach for two years. That’s not insignificant. Ownership and management clearly felt there was potential for the situation to spiral, giving them urgency to intervene.
Was there a specific short-term cause for the firing beyond losing so early in the playoffs?
Greg Wyshynski: According to Washington GM Brian MacLellan, the Capitals weren’t playing up to standards as early as Christmas 2019. “You could see the style of play start to deteriorate,” he said. “I think we had a good culture here and it’s starting to slip. I think we need to grab a hold of it, get it back to where it was. We’ve developed a habit of thinking that we can play good when we have to play good, rather than developing good habits and the games will take care of themselves.”
Once the Capitals hit the hub, those tendencies just got worse. MacLellan said the team lacked the structure of opponents like the Philadelphia Flyers and, yes, Trotz’s Islanders. The second-best offensive team in the NHL from the regular season was last in the postseason with a 1.57 expected goals percentage. The Islanders’ defense and the loss of center Nicklas Backstrom for a majority of the quarterfinals deserve some credit, but the Capitals were toothless offensively in the tournament.
What are some other changes that MacLellan will make this offseason?
Kaplan: First, there’s the issue of the assistant coaches. Reid Cashman was already leaving after accepting the head-coaching job at Dartmouth. Scott Arniel, Blake Forsythe and Scott Murray may stay, but their fate will be determined by the new coach — and new coaches tend to bring in their own guys.
Goalie Braden Holtby is an unrestricted free agent this summer. MacLellan didn’t rule out a Holtby return, but it’s pretty apparent this cap-strapped team is planning on Ilya Samsonov (on an entry-level contract) starting next season. On Holtby, MacLellan said: “It’s still to be decided. I think it’s going to be difficult. But sometimes opportunities come up that you don’t expect, and we’d like to play it out and see what happens.”
MacLellan said he feels good about the team’s top seven forwards (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and Lars Eller) but knows the blue line needs work. Reirden was constantly shuffling around defensive pairs this season trying to find combinations that worked, and MacLellan acquired Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline for short-term help. This is something the Caps may look to fix via free agency, or through another trade.
And finally, here’s your friendly reminder that Ovechkin is an unrestricted free agent after the 2020-21 season. Management will discuss an extension with Ovechkin over the next few months. It will be interesting to see if Ovechkin wants to do something long-term, or go year-by-year at this stage in his career as he chases down Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record.
Give me a rundown on the top candidates for the job, and any under-the-radar options that could be considered.
Wyshynski: Trotz was actually Ovechkin’s first head coach with previous NHL head-coaching experience. Whoever replaces Reirden should be his second, if we’re to believe what MacLellan has been saying. “Watching our performance in the bubble in Toronto, we need an experienced coach. We have an experienced group. We need someone to come in and push some buttons on some good players,” he said. “Somebody that can hold people accountable.”
There’s a robust group of veteran free-agent coaches available. Former Nashville coach Peter Laviolette and former Vegas coach Gerard Gallant have Stanley Cup experience. So does former Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, although he’s set to earn a $5.875 million annual salary from Toronto through June 2023 and has some baggage after allegations of psychological abuse surfaced after his firing. Former Flyers and Kings coach John Stevens, an assistant in Dallas, could also be on the radar. Then there’s former Penguins and Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma, who has a Stanley Cup ring and has been an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings.
One wild card: Former Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-2012. Everyone’s a bit older and wiser since his stint in Washington — is there any chance he could complete the circle with a return to D.C.? Backstrom, Ovechkin, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov are the only players remaining on the roster from Boudreau’s last team in Washington.
If the Capitals opted for a coach without experience, there’s Islanders associate coach Lane Lambert, who was in Washington and now on Long Island under Trotz.
So with the benefit of some hindsight, did the Capitals make a mistake in not bringing Trotz back?
Wyshynski: You could fill a 10-volume set of books with the amount of revisionist history being authored about Trotz and his departure from the Capitals these days.
Please recall that within the contract Trotz negotiated with Washington, there was a clause for an automatic two-year option with just a $300,000 salary bump if the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. When Washington finally won one in 2018, Trotz wanted to renegotiate that option. While Washington has always been frugal with its coaches, the money wasn’t necessarily the problem: It was the five-year term that the Capitals balked at. To complete that term, Trotz would have been the head coach of the Capitals for nine total years. And it’s unlikely he would have completed that term; consider that the Capitals weren’t exactly trending in the right direction before winning the Cup, as was chronicled by Japers Rink here. There were also whispers that Trotz may have left the Capitals anyway after the 2017-18 season.
(Oh, let’s just be clear: The chances of him getting any extension with the Capitals weren’t exactly good when owner Ted Leonsis told NHL.com after he left: “I read something that said we had a contract dispute, and you can’t have a dispute if you have a contract. I understand that Barry did what was in his best interest and his family’s best interest and I don’t begrudge that.”)
Trotz has found more success with the Islanders than the Capitals found with his younger, cheaper replacement — never mind that the Islanders excel at a style of hockey that Trotz could never convince the Capitals to play, unless we’ve all forgotten what happened when Dale Hunter coached the team.
MacLellan relies on his players to offer input on decisions. The choice to let Trotz walk was informed by that, and they influenced the decision to hire Reirden as a continuation of the previous regime, too. It’s a demonstrable fact that the latter decision was the wrong one. But given the team’s performance outside of four incredible rounds in 2018, and given Trotz’s contractual demands, it’s a misguided opinion that letting Trotz walk was a mistake. The Capitals might have been in this same position with Barry, only with three more years of contract to pay instead of the two they owe Reirden.
What’s next for Reirden?
Kaplan: You’ll see Reirden resurface in the NHL– he was a well-respected assistant with both the Penguins and Capitals before taking this job — but it might be a while before he gets another opportunity as a head coach. Since he’s being paid for the next two seasons by the Capitals, he can be choosy about his next gig.
Look for him to take a job as a defense-focused assistant in the NHL, or perhaps join a college hockey staff (Reirden is a Bowling Green alumnus and began his coaching career as an assistant with the Falcons).
Grade the decision.
Kaplan: B. If management had conviction that Reirden was not the right person for this job, I’m glad they acted on it instead of letting it linger. The Capitals’ window with this core is still open, but not for too long. There was an urgency to not let this post-championship malaise carry on.
Wyshynski: A. The Capitals thought they had the right man for the job with Reirden. He worked wonders with the Washington defensemen and had done the same in Pittsburgh. He was going to build on what Trotz had constructed. The players wanted him too. But it turns out he wasn’t the head coach they needed him to be. In football terms, he was a coordinator promoted to head coach who then failed to take that next step. Maybe he uses this experience and becomes a great head coach in his next stop. But for this team, at this time, it didn’t work. No need to wait. The core isn’t getting any younger. Admit the mistake, move on, and hire one of the big names on the market to push for a Cup.