The Washington Capitals are down 3-0 to the New York Islanders and may get swept Tuesday night, ending a season that started with so much promise. It would mark the second consecutive first-round exit for Todd Reirden’s Washington Capitals.
The emerging storyline goes like this: Barry Trotz is out-coaching Todd Reirden. The Capitals’ former Stanley Cup champion head coach, who led the Caps to the promised land in 2018 and then abruptly left the team, is taking his former assistant to school with superior hockey brainpower and experience.
I’m not sure I completely buy it. Barry is still the second losingest coach in NHL history and one time, he scratched Nate Schmidt for Mike Weber in a playoff game. But I’m also not sure I could convince you not to believe it.
Regardless, this beatdown has been so thorough that changes, perhaps big changes, will need to be made because it’s clear that this [gestures broadly at everything] isn’t working.
The Capitals are more talented and experienced than the Islanders, but the Capitals are still getting absolutely pummeled at 5v5. Beyond exemplary performances from Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, the Caps have looked an empty shell of itself. They seem content to play on the perimeter and try to needle pucks past five guys in the offensive zone. Ultimately, the players’ performance, motivation, and conditioning fall on the head coach and the rest of the coaching staff. They are the leaders. The buck stops with them.
That’s why, if there is a mandate to make big changes, Todd Reirden will be the first to go. Unless the Capitals can do what only four other teams in NHL history have done — dig itself from a 3-0 hole and win a series — Reirden will likely be out at the end of this season.
Past history doesn’t just suggest Reirden’s firing; it virtually guarantees it.
Every Capitals coach hired since 1981 who didn’t win a playoff series in their first two seasons didn’t get to coach into a third except for Glen Hanlon (who was in a rebuild.)
— Ted Starkey (@TedStarkey) August 17, 2020
[H]ead coach Todd Reirden is both responsible and accountable for all of it. If defensive coach Reid Cashman were the problem, the opportunity to replace him passed two months ago. If systems were the problem, he’s had 160 games to make adjustments. If motivation were the problem, he is becoming less likely to find the right sequence of words to speak in the right volume with the right intonation to get them going.
Winning is magic. Winning absolves coach’s of their failures and erases the murmurs of “he lost the room.” If the Caps would have squeaked out an undeserved win in Game Three, all of these numbers would be cast in a different light.
Firing Todd Reirden is an easy fix. It would be an injection of hope to the fanbase. But the team’s playing core is under contract for the long term, and the team has already verbally committed to keeping Alex Ovechkin for the rest of his career. The most substantial part of this team isn’t going anywhere.
But what if the Caps fire Reirden and then discover that the real problems remain. What if something is systemically wrong here, and swapping coaches is just changing the salad dressing on a bed of rotting lettuce (except you, Ovi, you, my dear, are the one delicious baby corn in there).
What if Reirden is a good coach? What if this Reirden vs. Trotz narrative is oversimplifying something way more complicated? For instance, every statistic you look at, beyond playoff performance, suggests that Reirden is good.
- Todd’s career record is 89-46-16. Reirden’s .642 point percentage ranks fifth in NHL history among coaches with at least 100 games.
- The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division in both of his seasons.
- Reirden is the third coach in NHL history to earn an All-Star nod in his first two seasons as a head coach.
- The Reirden Capitals had virtually the same regular-season record in 2018-19 (48-26-8) as the Trotz Caps in 2017-18 (49-26-7). And Reirden was on pace, through 69 nice games (41-20-8) this season to match or surpass that record.
- Alex Ovechkin, despite aging, has gotten even better under Reirden’s leadership and had 99 goals over the last two seasons.
- John Carlson is the favorite for the Norris Trophy.
- This is an opinion, but Reirden’s lines always made sense to me. There have been no rage-scratchings of talented young players like Jakub Vrana.
- Also, I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but Todd never benched Nate Schmidt in a playoff game for Mike Weber.
Oh no, I embedded the video.
Yup, there’s Mike Weber deflecting a puck directly to Patric Hornqvist for the game-winning overtime goal after I begged Barry not to play him earlier that day.
Then there’s this: What if the Capitals’ terrible showing in the playoffs is completely random? What if the unprecedented five-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic and the 24-team playoff format, which had the Capitals playing important games later than the Islanders, gave the Isles an advantage?
- The Islanders had to play good hockey immediately to advance, defeating the Florida Panthers three games to one in the Qualifying Round.
- After losing John Carlson to injury in the exhibition game, the Capitals seemed to manage, intentionally or unintentionally, their effort during their three round-robin games.
- It’s unclear how good of shape Capitals players were able to stay in during the pandemic.
- The team is playing in a bubble away from their families and friends. It’s unclear what the emotional toll is for certain players.
How much should we make of this year’s playoff disaster is up for debate.
I think the way we evaluate Reirden is colored by how things ended with Trotz too: winning the Stanley Cup. No matter what shortcomings Trotz had as a coach (he went into the season as a lame-duck and was nearly fired several times during the season), they were wiped away when he led the team to its first championship. We will always look at him fondly.
As Trotz left for greener pastures (and I mean, greener) in New York, Reirden, his protege, received the opportunity to be an NHL head coach for the first time. But with that opportunity came the unenviable task of trying to improve on the virtually un-improvable: winning the Stanley Cup. I guess you could win a championship gooder and more thoroughly right?
Reirden’s expectations were sky high, while Trotz, when he first came to the Capitals organization were low: just get back into the playoffs after Adam Oates wrecked the joint.
All of this is to say that from the outside, I think we unfairly criticize Todd’s performance as head coach of the team. Does that mean he should get an opportunity to coach the team next year if the team is swept? I don’t know.
There may be problems with this team regardless of the coach:
- Evgeny Kuznetsov is signed through 2025 with a $7.8 million cap hit. He is not a good player at five-on-five and struggles to makes his linemates better with consistency. Kuznetsov does not seem to be responding to Todd Reirden anymore. In Game Three, which Reirden defined as “the biggest of the year”, Kuzy’s first-period stat line looked like this.
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 5:18 5v5 TOI, 0/-8 CF, 0/-7 shots, 0/-1 goals, 0/-6 SCF, 0/-5 HDCF
— Chris Cerullo (@CJC_95) August 16, 2020
- The Capitals are a hodgepodge of different styles (speed, skill, physicality), making a singular identity or a single, all-purpose system hard to establish. Barry Trotz tweaked the Capitals’ defensive coverage late in 2018, which required the talented team to sit back more and have five guys on top of the puck at all times. The team completely bought in to the more defensive system and rode the wave to the Stanley Cup.
- The Capitals’ just don’t have a third line that scores like it used to. The team’s depth is not as strong as it used to be.
If the Capitals end up losing to the Islanders, which is nearly a statistical guarantee at this point, this fall’s offseason will be crucial to determining if any more Cups will be won during the Alex Ovechkin Era. Since winning it all in 2018, the Capitals have still won like they used to in the regular season, but they have failed to find that next level in the playoffs. They seem less hungry.
It’s going to be hard to aggressively change up the roster with a flat salary cap. So maybe changing coaches is the most aggressive thing they can do. All I ask is that if they fire Reirden, don’t talk of him like he was bad at his job. Maybe it’s time for us to be more skeptical about the roster.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB