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Capitals motivated to make run at Stanley Cup next season, coach says

Reirden discusses appreciating Ovechkin, trading Niskanen, plans for Gudas with

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

VANCOUVER -- Todd Reirden has had two months to think about how the Washington Capitals' Stanley Cup repeat dreams abruptly ended with a 4-3 double-overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round on April 24.

That's given the Capitals coach time to evaluate not only what happened in that series, but also the intense 10 months preceding it. That included him being promoted from associate coach to replace Barry Trotz as coach on June 29, 2018 (after Trotz resigned June 18), the summer-long Stanley Cup celebration and the ups and downs of his first season as an NHL coach.

"Last year at this point, I wasn't even the head coach," Reirden said. "A lot transpired. Now, it's coming up on 12 months. Looking at the time that we were doing it, I learned a lot and I'm going to continue to work at getting better and our staff getting better."

Losing in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs overshadowed that the Capitals (48-26-8) had a pretty good regular season, finishing first in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth consecutive season. But Washington also went through some rough spots, including a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2) Jan. 12-23, and their depth production slowed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when their top line of Alex Ovechkin (four goals), Nicklas Backstrom (five) and Tom Wilson (three) accounted for 12 of their 20 goals.

Reirden likened it to Trotz's first season with the Capitals in 2014-15, also Reirden's first season in Washington as an assistant, when they lost to the New York Rangers in overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

"I think we got better as a staff in Year Two and Year Three and Year Four with Barry," Reirden said. "We weren't perfect out of the gate. That's what we're going to work towards and in the name of making players better."

Reirden said there will be no changes to the coaching staff, which includes assistants Blaine Forsythe, Scott Arniel and Reid Cashman, and goaltending coach Scott Murray.

With Capitals prospects set to open development camp at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday, Reirden spoke with following the NHL Coaches Association meetings in Vancouver about his first year on the job.


Was repeating and taking over as coach after a summer of Cup celebrations when the players had less time for rest and working out a bigger challenge than you expected?

"It was something that's understood when you're going into a situation like that. It's something that I researched whether it was through NHL coaches or other sports coaches. I went to players. I knew it was something we were never going to use as an excuse. I think the style of play that we had to play to be successful when we won the Stanley Cup was a physical game and it was a heavier game, and it's not easy to do that year after year after year. [The Pittsburgh Penguins were] able to (win the Cup in 2016 and 2017), but they were a team that relied on speed and they had speed in their lineup.

"You have to deal with the personnel that you have, but that's part of learning and getting through it. We had some good stretches and we just weren't able to be at the top of our game like we were the year before. I think with some time away we're going to improve as coaches, and our players went through a much different summer this summer, and it wasn't so fun. I think they enjoyed what we were able to accomplish, and hopefully that's a driving force for us next year."


Anything you can share about what you learned about yourself as a coach?

"The thing that I would want to share is the understanding of things that don't necessarily deal with coaching hockey all the time, like the different obligations and responsibilities that you have. I take a lot of pride in how I want to lead not just our team but our staff. That's what good leaders do. You end up having to spend a lot of time doings some of those things. I think that's something I'll have a better feel for now that I've gone through it. I think empowering people to do things was something that was not the easiest for me."


It was tough for you to delegate responsibility to others?

"No, no. I did delegate, and that was something that was probably one of the more difficult things for me. When you're in that role that Barry had me in, the responsibilities I had, in terms of having control of all systematically and on ice from everything from the power play to how the D played to how we did 5-on-6, that was my responsibility, and I loved it. And there's not enough time in the day, so I had to delegate some of that. That's something I can continue to get better at, but that's not easy when you're not able to do those things (being) someone who likes to be a part of it."


Coaches always talk about their best players having to play their best. Was one of the positives from the playoffs that your best guys, Ovechkin, Backstrom, John Carlson, played at the top of their games?

"To me, it's been fun to watch how Ovechkin in particular, but Backstrom in addition to that, how he has really been a huge driving force. Certainly, he wins the Conn Smythe (MVP of the playoffs) the year before, and then he was our best player this year in the playoffs. That's something that's exciting to see and that's something that doesn't happen all the time. For him, at that age (33), to be able to still be going that hard and playing the game the right way at the end of the year is a credit to who he is and the commitment he's made the last few years to try to improve as a leader."


Defenseman Matt Niskanen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas on June 14. You were with Niskanen for four seasons with Pittsburgh before you each joined the Capitals, along with defenseman Brooks Orpik, in 2014. Was it difficult to see him leave?

"It's very rare you get an opportunity to coach a player for nine years. I've been very fortunate to coach him for nine years and Brooks Orpik for 10 years. It worked out great for everybody involved, myself and our organization, to be able to win a Stanley Cup. I think they were big components of that when we came over from Pittsburgh. I love to make players better on the ice and improve them, but when you go through nine years with somebody, I've seen his whole family grow and him change as a human being. That's exciting. He wasn't married. Now, he's married, and he has two kids. It's not just the hockey part, but just to see the human being, to me, that's the best part of our job. He's a special guy."

Video: Caps deal Niskanen to Flyers in exchange for Gudas


Do you envision Gudas taking over Orpik's physical role on defense if Orpik retires or leaves as an unrestricted free agent?

"We still don't know what's going to happen with Brooks. I've seen him a few times this summer. But if Brooks is not returning, I think it's a guy that allows us to play a more physical game back there and he does a lot of things that Brooks does. I think he helps our penalty kill. He's a physical presence, for sure. The combination of having someone that's not fun to play against in addition to a guy like Tom Wilson up front, I like the look of our team. We want to be heavier and we want to be no fun to play against. If you look at the rest of our D corps, even the young guys, we're not really built that way, so we're excited to add him to our mix."

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