As Todd Reirden watched Alex Ovechkin finally hoist the Stanley Cup, on some levels, he could relate.
Reirden was never the star or a dynamic scorer for a team like the Capitals captain, but the 47-year-old tolled through the minor leagues for most of his playing days. He knew the path to playing one NHL game — let alone a championship — wasn’t easy.
“When you have to go through a journey to get somewhere and go through some adversity to get somewhere, it tastes that much sweeter,” Reirden said.
But that was then. Moving forward, Reirden, promoted from associate to head coach Friday, inherits a team that has now earned the sport’s ultimate reward at the highest level. Typically, that’s a challenge for any coach — but this is Reirden’s first-time at the helm of an NHL franchise.
The Capitals, though, have confidence in Reirden, who was Washington’s only interview for the position. After all, general manager Brian MacLellan has said the Capitals were grooming Reirden to become a head coach for the last four years.
As it turns out, that was for the Capitals since former coach Barry Trotz resigned after the two parties couldn’t agree to a new deal.
“From my end, I think certainly it will be a unique challenge,” Reirden said. “There’s no need to put that into any other way than it is. I’m coming into a situation where we’ve had success and have been able to get the biggest prize in the game in our hands. And we did it a certain way.
“There’s going to be many things that stay the same, but there’s gonna be some things that I think I have to be cognizant of a team that’s going to be repeating. I want to create an environment where players are going to continue to be challenged with new ideas and new ways to improve their games.”
Reirden, who said he was surprised over Trotz’ resignation, is just the fifth coach in the last 40 years to take over a team the season after they won the Stanley Cup, and the first since 1994.
He’ll do so with largely the same roster intact — with the Capitals re-signing defensemen John Carlson and Michal Kempny. Ovechkin and fellow star Nicklas Backstrom, too, are under contract for the next few years. (Ovechkin’s deal expires in 2021, while Backstrom’s deal is up in 2020.)
MacLellan said he has “all the faith in the world” that Reirden is the right man for the job. With Washington, Reirden oversaw the defensemen and played a pivotal role in their development. He also helped out on the power play.
“I can’t tell you how many times players have communicated to me personally or through their agents how happy they were with how Todd handled them,” MacLellan said, “and I think that’s a big part of having players that develop, having players that buy into what you’re trying to sell, and I think he’s going to be very successful at it.”
Reirden said he has already reached out to coaches who have previously won the Stanley Cup to discuss the challenges of repeating, adding he has planned changes to the team’s schedule to keep things fresh.
On the ice, Reirden wouldn’t commit to a certain style until the roster was set, though MacLellan said the two talked about running most of the same schemes. If there’s a difference, MacLellan said the Capitals could become more aggressive on the penalty kill.
Reirden, meanwhile, will keep assistant Blaine Forsyth and goaltending coach Scott Murray on staff. Washington will look to hire another assistant to replace Lane Lambert, ideally someone with previous head coaching experience to provide guidance to Reirden.
Besides his track record for development, Reirden also has the reputation for being well-prepared, using film to thoroughly explain situations. In 2016, he wowed the Calgary Flames, finishing as a finalist to become their next coach.
Reirden, having not known anyone in the Flames organization beforehand, said the opportunity helped his name “grow” in the NHL community. The following year, Buffalo and Florida were interested in Reirden, but he was not allowed to interview because of a contract stipulation that prohibited him to leave one year after being promoted to the associate role.
In retrospect, Reirden might have dodged a bullet — given he now gets to take a Stanley Cup-winning team.
“I expect this to be an extremely seamless transition,” Reirden said.