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After the artificial crowd noise finished simulating the clamor of an overtime winner for the New York Islanders on Sunday, television cameras at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena caught 24-year-old Capitals winger Jakub Vrána alone on the Washington bench, his head in his arms.
Just moments earlier, Vrána had failed to score on his second breakaway chance of the game and blown the opportunity to give the Capitals a win and bring their series with the Islanders back within striking distance. Instead, New York goalie Semyon Varlamov made a routine save, and center Mathew Barzal scored seconds later to give the Islanders the 3-0 series lead, pushing the Capitals to the brink of elimination.
Yet after the game, most of Capitals fans’ ire wasn’t directed at Vrana (zero points in his last 13 playoffs games), goalie Braden Holtby (a .888 SV% this series), or even at the cruel peculiarities of “pandemic bubble” hockey itself.
It was focused squarely on second-year Capitals head coach Todd Reirden.
Reirden replaced Barry Trotz as Capitals head coach in 2018 after Trotz led Washington to its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Islanders quickly hired Trotz, a two-time winner of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach, and he’s led them to back-to-back postseason appearances. Instead of hiring one of the many veteran NHL bench bosses available at the time, the Capitals chose to give the keys to the franchise to a rookie head coach.
So how did they get here?
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When a team has a coaching vacancy and is considering offering the position to a coach currently working for another club, the team must formally request permission from that coach’s club to interview the individual while under contract. According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, both the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres requested permission to interview Reirden for their head coaching vacancies in 2017. And according to Hockey Night in Canada’sElliotte Friedman, Washington denied permission to both clubs.
Franchises that have good relationships with their coaches rarely deny this permission without reason; they are not in the business of deliberately hindering the professional growth of their staff. To many observers with their ears to the F Street NW pavement, the meaning was clear: Washington had already promised Reirden, a loyal and successful assistant with a long track record of player development, its next head coaching gig.
Set aside for a moment the team’s decision to part ways with Trotz, which remains to this day shrouded in a bit of mystery for fans. The team would be handing over the reins to a champion thoroughbred to whichever candidate they chose. The decision, then, to trust Reirden, a man who had just one season of head coaching experience at any level of professional hockey, with the future of a team that looked to all observers capable of repeating as NHL champions was a risky one at best, and perhaps a foolish one in retrospect.
The conclusion of the 2020 campaign will mark the end of Reirden’s second full season as Capitals head coach. The average tenure of all current NHL head coaches? Two seasons.
Say what you will about the effort of the players. Say what you will about the pressures of the bubble. Say what you will about unflinching chaos and the entropy of the universe. But don’t say Reirden hasn’t been given ample opportunity to show that he can lead this team. Thirty other head coaches wish they’d been handed control of a defending Stanley Cup champion bringing back 80 percent of its championship roster. Reirden has been given every opportunity to succeed, and so far, he hasn’t.
Another unignorable fact: 30 other teams don’t have Alex Ovechkin on their roster, the greatest pure goal-scoring weapon in the history of ice hockey. Ovechkin, now 34, has refused to conform to every established statistical model of regression for aging wingers. But as the old saying goes, a dog can only run halfway into the woods before he is running out of them. And Ovechkin, with more than 1,150 NHL games behind him and surely fewer than that in front of him, is running out of the woods.
Do this franchise and the head coaches it hires have an obligation to fans and to Ovechkin to do everything they can to give him a shot to win as many Stanley Cups as possible before he retires?
“I believe in myself as a coach and believe in our team and our leadership group that we can focus on getting this one win here and seeing where that takes us from there,” Reirden told reporters after Game 3.
But ultimately, the question isn’t whether Reirden believes in his leadership group. It’s whether his leadership group believes in him. Staring down the barrel of another first-round exit, that may depend on whether he can find a way to steer this team past the man he replaced.