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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.