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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.

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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.

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins visit Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After falling at Washington on Sunday afternoon for its third straight regulation loss, the Penguins head west for a California swing that has them at Anaheim on Friday and San Jose on Saturday. Prior to dropping its last three, Pittsburgh had gone 16-4-2 since Dec. 27 and has closed the gap on the first-place Capitals in the Metro.

Patrick Marleau is now on his third team in three seasons after spending the first 19 seasons of his career with San Jose. The Sharks drafted him second overall in the 1997 Draft (after Boston selected Joe Thornton), which was held in Pittsburgh, before Marleau signed as a free agent with Toronto in July 2017. He spent two years with the Maple Leafs before the Sharks picked him back up in October when he was a free agent. With the Sharks near the bottom of the standings, Marleau is now back with a contender as he searches for that elusive Stanley Cup after losing to his new team in his only Cup Final appearance.

The Kings are on the other end of the spectrum, as they sit last in the West and will miss the playoffs for the second straight season and fourth time in the last six years. This comes after a run of five straight playoff appearances from 2010-2014, which included two Stanley Cup championships (2012, 2014).

After finishing last season with the second-worst record in the entire league and worst record in the Western Conference, the Kings have continued to struggle this season. They once again sit with the second-worst record in the league and last in the West as they look set to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in more than a decade.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at Los Angeles Kings
WHERE: STAPLES Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Kings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary
Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Patrick Marleau – Evan RodriguesDominik Simon
Jared McCannTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso Riikola – Zach Trotman

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

KINGS
Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Alex IafalloBlake LizotteTrevor Lewis
Trevor Moore – Gabriel Vilardi – Martin Frk
Nikolai Prokhorkin – Mike Amadio – Austin Wagner

Joakim RyanDrew Doughty
Ben HuttonMatt Roy
Kurtis MacDermidSean Walker

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Alex Faust and analyst Jim Fox will call the action at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom to miss at least 2 weeks

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Some tough news for the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night as general manager Jim Benning issue an update on the status of starting goalie Jakob Markstrom.

Benning announced that Markstrom underwent a “minor lower-body procedure” on Wednesday and that his return to play status will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

The Canucks are already playing without one of their top wingers, Brock Boeser, due to injury. They are currently in a fight for the top spot in the Pacific Division. Their next game is in Ottawa on Thursday night as they continue their current four-game road trip. They play seven games over the next two weeks and will rely on Thatcher Demko and the recently acquired Louis Domingue to take over the goaltending duties.

It is definitely not an ideal situation for the Canucks. Markstrom may not get a ton of attention league wide, but he has solidified the Canucks’ goaltending position the past couple of years and has been outstanding this season with a .918 save percentage in 43 games.

He is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and has certainly played his way to a significant raise on his next contract.

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.

Avalanche vs. Sabres: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just more than a quarter of the regular season to go for Colorado, the Avalanche sit in a divisional playoff spot as they vie with St. Louis, Dallas and Vegas for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Avs have won three straight and are one of the hottest teams over the last month and half, having gone 11-3-1.

Though the defending champion Blues are on top of the West, both the Avs and Stars are right on St. Louis’ heels. For the second straight season, it appears the Central will come down to the wire (last season, the top three teams – Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis – finished the season separated by just one point).

Philipp Grubauer left the outdoor game at Air Force against LA on Feb. 15 with a lower-body injury and has not played since. 29-year-old Pavel Francouz, who made his first NHL start earlier this season, has started all 4 games since Grubauer has been out and allowed just 6 goals (3- 0-1 record, 1.46 GAA, .941 SV%). On the season, Francouz is 16-5-3 with a 2.27 GAA.

The Sabres enter this game having won two straight and five of their last six games. Although they sit in sixth in the Atlantic, this run has managed to close the playoff gap between them and Toronto (third in Atlantic) and Florida (fourth) over the past two weeks, with each of those clubs struggling (Buffalo eight points back of Toronto).

At the beginning of the month it seemed the Sabres would be sellers at the trade deadline and looked to be headed towards another offseason without a playoff appearance. A strong two-week stretch has shifted things a bit as Buffalo is within reach of a playoff spot and did not approach Monday’s deadline as a sell-off.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Sabres-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Victor OlofssonJack EichelSam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonWayne Simmonds
Jimmy VeseyCurtis LazarMichael Frolik
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Brandon MontourRasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabeHenri Jokiharju
Rasmus DahlinColin Miller

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

AVALANCHE
Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonValeri Nichushkin
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherJoonas Donskoi
Vladislav NamestnikovPierre-Edouard Bellemare – Martin Kaut
Mark BarberioVladislav Kamenev – Logan O’Connor

Ryan GravesCale Makar
Samuel GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeNikita Zadorov

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.