Though the Capitals kept most of their Cup-winning roster from 2018, their biggest change was behind the bench, where Todd Reirden took over as head coach.
Analyzing coaching is hard. There’s a common level of competence among NHL coaches that makes major differentiation in the quality of systems play kind of rare (with some exceptions), so the things we’re left to pick on are often spurious: quotes to the press that may or may not have anything to do with how they actually coach, or player evaluation decisions that are usually restricted to depth players who don’t impact the game significantly. There’s just not a ton of surface area to latch onto in detail, so we should start with the big picture, which is easy to summarize:
With the exception of not winning the Stanley Cup again, Todd Reirden’s 2018-19 Capitals were about as good as in previous seasons.
During the regular season, the Caps won their division and earned just one less standings point compared to 2017-18.
That’s not the domination we saw in the middle part of the Trotz administration, but it’s still a darn good hockey team.
The postseason is a harder nut to crack. Washington got roundly outplayed by Carolina (expected goals were 14.8 to 10.7), and that’s on Reirden to some extent, but they were still a single bounce from advancing to the second round. Kind of like the Caps of the first and third rounds last playoffs. Perhaps the biggest difference between the 2018-19 Caps and the 2017-18 Caps was that this team didn’t get that lucky bounce. That is not a coaching failure. (You may disagree. Feel free to pummel me me for this in the comments.)
But while I can’t ascribe the first round exit to the head coach, there were certainly some peccadillos to scrutinize, which we will address below. Before that, I want to further emphasize just how stable and good this team has been. Below are five-on-five percentages of various on-ice events over time, with darker colors for more recent seasons. Above 50 percent is good.
After taking a major step backwards following 2016-17, the Caps actually made minor improvements since losing Trotz in the summer of 2018. Remember: The Cap of Trotz’s final season had profound defensive problems, particularly with opponent shot quality. While the 2018-19 Capitals improved in most of those stats, the changes were mild — and the improvement came on offense, not defense. To illustrate that fact, here are HockeyViz heatmaps for opponent shot locations against Washington from the past two seasons.
No big differences on this end of the ice. Opponent rates for scoring chances (28.4 per hour, sixth worst), high-danger chances (12.9 per hour, second worst), and expected goals (2.5 per hour, fifth worst) remained stable from Trotz’s final season, which could suggest either that Todd Reirden does not know how to solve the team’s defensive problems or that the team’s defensive problems are not solvable by coaching. I have my suspicions about that — since both the 2018 and 2019 teams improved dramatically following personnel changes at the trade deadlines — but I’d like to hear your thoughts too.
Beyond the underlying pattern of play, we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss a struggle the Caps had not experienced under Trotz: a seven-game losing streak in late January.
That stretch of the season was lousy with rush goals against the Caps — a systems failing for which the head coach certainly bears some responsibility. But at the same time, I appreciated Reirden’s candor and positivity during the slump. And once the team was tooled up properly, the put together a fully off-setting seven-game win streak in early March.
Now’s the part of the review where we briefly recap some of those dramatic, tangible details that often characterize a coach’s style– whether fairly or not:
Aside perhaps from Jaskin, I think there are reasonable explanations for most of these controversies. But the takeaway I’ve got is that things aren’t perfectly rosy with Reirden — especially when paired with tactical/systems-play problems like increased opponent rush attacks or the slingshot pass increasing the Caps’ time-to-formation on the power play. Each of those items has some merit as criticism of Reirden, and together they make the case that he’s not a perfect coach. No one is, so the heart of the matter is this: Can Todd Reirden get the defense back into form? Can he keep Ovechkin productive in his mid 30s? And can he get the Caps back into Cup contention?
Read more: Japers Rink
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