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A Process to the Top

A combination of being a student of the game and his ability to challenge players allowed Todd Reirden to rise to pinnacle of coaching

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 /

It's hard to believe it now, but Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen concedes he was once a mentally fragile NHL defenseman.

"I hit a tough patch in my career," Niskanen recalls. "I wasn't playing a lot in Dallas and then I was traded in the middle of the [2010-11] season to Pittsburgh. My confidence was pretty shot."

But that's when Niskanen met then-Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden. Reirden saw potential in the 2005 first-round pick and soon went to work to rebuild the once promising talent.

"His career was heading in the wrong direction," Reirden says, "but we created a plan to restore his confidence."

According to Niskanen, Reirden spent considerable time with him during his first few weeks in Pittsburgh, highlighting the positives in his game and reviewing plenty of video to reinforce good habits.

With Reirden's guidance, Niskanen developed into a top defenseman in Pittsburgh before ultimately signing a long-term deal with the Capitals in 2014.

"I owe a lot to Todd," Niskanen says. "A lot of players owe him a lot. So good for him that now he's getting his chance [to be a head coach]. He deserves it."

The Capitals named Reirden the 18th head coach in franchise history last summer, choosing to stay in-house to find the successor for Barry Trotz. The transition has predictably been seamless given Reirden's familiarity with the organization and the relationships he built during his four years as an assistant/associate coach.

Relationship building and earning the trust of his players have been among Reirden's strengths during his nine seasons as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and Washington. Reirden prides himself on spending one-on-one time with his players and developing individual game plans.

"He sets a specific plan and he has the ability to motivate players to improve and to work on that plan and to be at their very best," says former Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, now an assistant with Detroit. "He's done that over and over again in his career whether it's with entry-level players or with high-end players. He's the best at it. He has a history helping guys reach their potential."

Niskanen says that Reirden not only develops a plan for each individual, but the plans evolve with time. Once a player reaches a level of consistency under Reirden's tutelage, Reirden will look for the next challenge.

"After my first year here," Niskanen says, "one of my first challenges was having a less experienced partner. I went from playing with Karl Alzner to playing with [Dmitry] Orlov, who at that point was fairly green. It was a challenge for me to be a really good partner for him and to be a little bit of a leader. It was the first time in my career that I had a partner that was less experienced than I was. So, that was a different type of challenge. Those are the different types of things; the different ways he challenges you to take ownership with your role. He pushes you to get better."

During his own playing days, Reirden suited up in 183 career NHL games spread over parts of five seasons in the late 90s and early 2000s. He also played for 15 minor-league teams across five leagues and four countries.

It was during one of his final stops - a stint with the AHL's Houston Aeros in 2004-05 - that Reirden first entertained the possibility of coaching. Sidelined with an injury, Reirden was approached by then-Aeros head coach Todd McLellan.

"He was in a tough situation," says McLellan, now the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. "He was a player at the backend of his career, a veteran being sent down to the minors, and he wasn't going to be in the lineup. But I noticed that he had a real astute mind for the game and took interest in tactics and relationships and that type of stuff, so I asked him if he had any interest in coaching and if he'd like to sit in on our meetings. He was very open to it."

Reirden went on to play two more seasons in Europe, but the introduction to coaching he received in Houston piqued his interest.

"Certainly, looking back on it, I can't think Todd enough for getting me started on that process," Reirden says. "He put me in situations to succeed with different players whether it was Brent Burns or Mikko Koivu and he sat me in the locker room in such a way that he could use me as an extension of the coaching staff."

McLellan says that he quickly realized that Reirden would ultimately become a successful coach. Reirden wasn't the first veteran player that McLellan invited into the coaches' room, but while some players may have tested the waters only to have the interest fade, Reirden continued to work at it.

"He was persistent," McLellan recalls. "He was always there asking questions and wanting to know what he could do, so I had an idea that deep down he really wanted to do it. He knew the requirements for it- the amount of time and energy and input that's required for it."

More than a decade later, that persistence paid off as Reirden earned a long-awaited NHL head coaching gig.

"As soon as I saw it, I texted him immediately and congratulated him," says Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, who spent six seasons playing for Reirden in the Penguins organization. "He went the long road and along the way, he's become a better coach."

Engelland was a career minor leaguer before finally making his NHL debut when he was 27. He credits Reirden, and the teaching he provided at AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton, for allowing him to make the jump. Nearly a decade later, Engelland has more than 500 career NHL games on his resume.

"Our careers took a similar path so I have a lot of respect for him and what he's done for me."

Closer to home, Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny is also appreciative of Reirden's one-on-one teachings.

A year ago, Kempny found himself in and out of Chicago's lineup before a late-season trade to the Capitals potentially saved his career.

Kempny was strongly considering a return to Europe for the 2018-19 season, but he'd ultimately emerge as a key cog on the Capitals' Stanley Cup run before signing a four-year deal to remain in Washington. Kempny credits Reirden for helping him quickly adjust to the Capitals last spring.

"He trusted me," Kempny says. "He played me in different situations, big minutes, important minutes. It gave me confidence right away and we watched video. He showed me a lot of positives in my game."

In the cases of Niskanen in 2011 and Kempny in 2018, Reirden's goal was simply to get the player back on track. Some of his other individual projects have included well-established defensemen such as Kris Letang and John Carlson and getting them to elevate their games from very good to great.

In Carlson's case, Reirden sat him down before the 2017-18 season. After battling injuries the previous two seasons, Reirden told Carlson that if healthy, he could contend for the Norris Trophy. Despite never finishing higher than 10th in Norris voting, Carlson had a career season, leading all defensemen in overall scoring. He'd ultimately finish fifth in the year-end vote for the League's best defenseman but has already emerged as an early candidate this season.

"I think he's a good reader of people and really detailed about certain things that I know changed my game," says Carlson. "He just clearly maps it all out for you."

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