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Under Pressure: Todd Reirden

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Barry Switzer deserved better.

You won’t hear that take often, certainly not on a hockey site. But that’s my take: people often act like the Dallas Cowboys winning a Super Bowl post-Jimmy Johnson was a given, to the point that Johnson had to shake off claims that “Switzer owed him his ring.” Such reactions dismiss how difficult it is to win at a high level, particularly when you carry the mantle of heavy favorites.

Once everything is said and done, new Capitals head coach Todd Reirden might feel Switzer’s pain.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

Even out of the specific context, Reirden would be under serious pressure. After all, the 47-year-old is receiving his first opportunity to be an NHL head coach after a long climb, including several years as an assistant between gigs with Washington and Pittsburgh.

Taking over for a team with aspirations to contend would already be a challenge on top of that, but he’s also responsible for the encore after the Capitals won their long-awaited first Stanley Cup. As The AP’s Stephen Whyno noted, Reirden is just the fourth new coach to take over a reigning champion over the last 30 years.

Colin Campbell was one of those other three coaches, as he inherited the New York Rangers after Mike Keenan’s historic (and tumultuous run).

“You can only tie. You can’t do better,” Campbell said. “Tying’s pretty good. You have to win a Cup just tie your performance from a year before.”

Whyno collected the advice three other coaches (Campbell, along with Dave Lewis and Scotty Bowman) gave to Reirden, which came down to being himself but also managing the transition from being an assistant/associate to head coach. That could be an underrated challenge, especially if an assistant and head coach previously created a “good cop/bad cop” dynamic. What happens if a more nurturing presence must now bring the hammer down?

Reirden said the right things about finally getting his head coaching shot, but it’s most interesting to note how he’ll aim for systemic changes, and how he’ll approach different personalities.

“I think one of my strengths as an assistant is I’ve been able to have a strong pulse of when the players need time away, when they need to be pushed harder,” Reirden said recently, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “In terms of those type of things, with it being a longer [Stanley Cup Playoff] run (last season), it’s important to have a strong pulse on your team and your leadership group in particular and know when to push and when to pull back a little bit in terms of where we’re at energy-wise. Those are things that I’ve already made adjustments to (in) our overall schedule that’s planned out, with travel situations or different things we can do to make sure we’re fresh to be able to give ourselves every chance we can to repeat.”

That sounds promising, and it’s plausible that Reirden may actually end up being a better fit for the Capitals. The painful possibility, though, is that he could very well do a great job and still get bashed if Washington’s results aren’t there. Winning a Stanley Cup – not to mention racking up Presidents’ Trophies before that title – sets the bar very high.

There are a number of scenarios where bad results could be out of Reirden’s hands:

  • He simply might not be a tactician at Trotz’s level: Trotz has his critics – Reirden may have more trust in skilled, young players, for example – but few would doubt his defensive schemes. Could there be a drop-off from Trotz to Reirden? It’s possible even if Reirden is still strong in that area.
  • Luck going the other way: One factor that slips under the radar is that the Capitals were weirdly healthy during Trotz’s years. It’s gotten to the point where it’s bordering on spooky.

Honestly, that might be the thing people should have harped on during Washington’s letdowns: they rarely dealt with key losses like other teams did. Their bitter rivals in Pittsburgh won a Stanley Cup with Kris Letang on the shelf, yet they’ve also been hobbled by serious issues to virtually all of their key players, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Maybe the Capitals’ staff can continue to work under-the-radar miracles, paralleling the Phoenix Suns’ glory days. Such a run of health might also have as much to do with luck as anything else, though, and Reirden could end up footing the bill.

  • Aging curve: The Capitals’ health luck has been remarkable, in part, because of the sheer mileage on their best players. Between international play and regular trips to the playoffs – disappointing or not – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and other key Caps have played a lot of hockey.

The older a player is, the greater injury risks tend to come along, strengthening the worries about health above. Even if trainers get that under control, you wonder if Father Time might come knocking as early as 2018-19.

The Capitals aren’t ancient, but if a series of moderate declines hit at the same time, it could really sting. Ovechkin is 32, and has played in 139 more regular-season games than his rival Crosby (1,003 to 864), even though both took the league by storm during the same 2005-06 season. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, T.J. Oshie is 31, and Matt Niskanen was showing signs of decline and is 31.

Again, these guys wouldn’t make the same pop culture references as Joe Thornton or Jaromir Jagr, but they’re already liable to start the season with a Stanley Cup hangover. (Ovechkin’s summer might be one big hangover, really.) It could be a tough regular season if they lose a few steps, particularly if they try to save some energy for the postseason.

Some people will be fair to Reirden if 2018-19 is bumpy. All it takes is a few impulsive (and probably unfair) hot takes to start to turn up the temperature, though.

  • Some losses: The Capitals navigated the off-season reasonably well, aside from the occasional debatable decision like Tom Wilson‘s new contract. Time will tell if it was right to pay big to keep John Carlson, but Reirden has to be relieved to have him to start.

That doesn’t mean that the Capitals kept the whole band together, and some subtractions could make life tougher for Reirden.

There’s at least some reason to worry that Braden Holtby might have another tough regular season, as Philipp Grubauer is no longer there to pick up the slack.

***

So, there are “be careful what you wish for” elements to Reirden getting a promotion to the head coaching gig.

As Campbell said, it’s not like he can really “top” what the Capitals did last year. It’s probably unfair to expect Reirden to duplicate those results – after all, this Stanley Cup run probably surprised more than a few Capitals executives and fans – but plenty of people will demand as much, anyway.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Pageau, Panarin stay hot; Blues sign Brouwer

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Three Stars

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers may not be where they want in the standings right now, but Panarin has been everything they could have possibly expected him to be and more. He extended his point streak to 12 games on Wednesday night with a two-goal effort in the Ranges’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Panarin has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 19 games this season and has at least two points in seven games during his current streak, including three in a row. Read all about the Rangers’ big win right here.

2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. Don’t look now but the Senators are just a single point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and have played in one less game. The biggest reason for the Senators’ recent surge has been a goal-scoring binge from Pageau that has seen him score 10 goals in the month of November, tops in the league. His goal on Wednesday to open the scoring in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal was his 13th of the season and 10th of the month. He is on track for a career year offensively. The timing could not be better for him personally as he is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will also increase his trade value for the Senators if they look to continue their rebuild by dealing him before the trade deadline.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Goaltending (mostly from Anders Nilsson) is the other big reason for the Senators’ recent improvement, and on Wednesday it was Anderson doing his best to steal two points by stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced against the Canadiens. It was probably Anderson’s best performance of the season.

Blues add some forward depth

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues made a roster move on Wednesday by signing veteran forward Troy Brouwer to a one-year contract. He spent the 2018-19 season playing for the Florida Panthers, scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in 75 games. That move comes on the same day the team announced that forward Sammy Blais will be sidelined for 10 weeks after he was injured in the Blues’ win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. The Blues are already playing without Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, and recently traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlight of the Night

Brady Tkachuk was the overtime hero for the Senators, finishing a great breakaway and taking advantage of a miscommunication by the Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Henrik Lundqvist earned his 454th career win, moving him into a tie with Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Panarin’s 12-game point streak is the Rangers’ longest since Scott Gomez during the 2007-08 season. [Rangers Stats & Info]
  • Pageau just needs more three more goals in November to tie the Senators’ franchise record for most goals in a month. Ottawa has five more games this month.  [NHL PR]
  • John Carlson added another assist to his total for the season, giving him 36 points on the season. Entering play on Wednesday he and Bobby Orr were the only defensemen in NHL history that needed only 23 games to hit the 35-point mark. [NHL PR]
  • Nick Suzuki scored the only goal for Montreal, giving him six on the season. That is second among the NHL’s rookies this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 2, Montreal Canadiens 1 (OT)
New York Rangers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.