By Ian Oland
The Washington Capitals will be on the hook to pay part of Todd Reirden’s salary next season to be an assistant coach with the Penguins (unless he’s being paid more by Pittsburgh). The Penguins, of course, are the Caps’ biggest rival.
While speaking to Penguins media on Wednesday, a beaming Reirden told reporters that, “I’ve learned a lot (in Washington) and I’m excited to share it here with the players.”
The Capitals’ former head coach, who posted an 89-46-16 record in two seasons and led the team to consecutive Metropolitan Division titles, received interest from several teams after being fired by Washington. He called returning to Pittsburgh, the franchise that gave him his first coaching opportunity in the NHL, “a perfect fit.”
“After the decision was made in Washington, it was really quickly right after that permission was asked for by the Pittsburgh Penguins and eventually granted,” Reirden said. “They were extremely aggressive [setting up] conversations and interviews with Mike (Sullivan) and Jim (Rutherford).”
Reirden added, “I was just drawn to [Pittsburgh] by their detail, their passion, their excitement for getting back to Cup days of a few years ago and having a new voice. Yet someone who the players were familiar with and strong relations with, especially the core group of players here. I think it was something that just seemed to go full circle and the way it happened here was a perfect fit for everyone involved.”
Reirden will coach the Penguins’ defense and power play, just like he did in Washington when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Reirden could also be in line to be the team’s next head coach if the team scuffles and decides parts ways with Mike Sullivan – a similar scenario he found himself in Washington. Under Sullivan’s leadership, the Penguins have lost in the first round in 2019 and the play-in round in 2020. They also lost to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Capitals in 2018 during the semifinals.
“I obviously still need to learn and grow and improve and learned a lot of lessons as head coach of Washington, and looking forward to learning from Mike Sullivan and the success he’s had, winning back-to-back championships,” Reirden said. “Certainly, it’s been a challenge going against him the last six years on the opposite bench. It’s always a unique perspective when you’re able to bring some knowledge of different teams over to another one. I respect that organization and that team so much with what they’ve accomplished. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”
How did things go down?
Todd Reirden: After the decision was made in Washington, it was really quickly right after that permission was asked for by the Pittsburgh Penguins and eventually granted. A really important day for myself and the Pittsburgh Penguins moving together here.
That was what made this situation so unique. I did have connections with some players here, obviously lots of staff members and just loved everything about Pittsburgh and what the Penguins are all about.
Are you excited to work with Kris Letang again?
Todd Reirden: Definitely coming back to work with Kris was something that I’ve looked forward to. We’ve spent a lot of time in his infant stages of him becoming an NHL defenseman and find a common ground between the talent level that he has and staying healthy and being able to still contribute on both ends of the ice. He’s obviously a special player and together we had some success with him being up for the Norris. That was a good good time.
How much have you looked at the Penguins power play and what do you think needs to be changed?
Todd Reirden: It’s something initially I had some ideas from Pittsburgh that I brought with me to Washington. I was in charge of the power play there and in the two years as a head coach I was no longer doing the power play – just overseeing things. It’ll be good for me to get back in full time on looking at the power play and the dynamic that this unit has. Obviously there’s a lot of special skill there and finding out some structure and making sure we’re utilizing everybody’s strengths and minimizing their weaknesses will allow us to have success. The importance of evaluating the power play properly is something that we had instilled years ago when I worked with these same guys and will again be a really important measuring stick for us to figure out how we can get back to the top of the league here.
What’s your excitement level reuniting with that Penguins core?
Todd Reirden: I was fortunate to coach in the All-Star Game for two years so I was able to see Kris the last two years and obviously Sid last year. During the year, there isn’t a whole lot of communication between Penguins and Capitals players and coaches. I saw them in the bubble briefly. Talked to them there as well. Not any real contact yet as I know my phone has been going off this morning with the news coming but looking forward to reconnecting with those players. It was one of the real strong reasons why I wanted to come back and be a part of the Penguins organization again and that’s the drive that [Sidney Crosby] and Evgeni [Malkin] have to win another Stanley Cup and I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of getting them back to where they’re accustomed to being and I think we can do that here.
How have you grown and developed as a coach with the Capitals? You had a chance to work with Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson and how can that help you with the star players here again?
Todd Reirden: I think I’ve been extremely blessed with the opportunities I’ve had as an assistant coach, associate coach, head coach to work with some of the stars of the league going back to my time here originally. I was extremely thankful at the time for the Pittsburgh Penguins giving me my first real opportunity at the NHL and be an assistant coach there and be with those types of players.
To circle back with them, I know I’ve grown as a coach. I know I’ve improved. From the things I’ve learned in the six years I’ve been in Washington and eventually winning a Stanley Cup there, it is only going to make me a much better product when I left here.
That’s the exciting thing. I’ve learned a lot and I’m excited to share it here with the players under a great direction with Mike Sullivan, just an outstanding coach. I’m looking forward to working with him and Mike Vellucci who’s done so well in a number of different leagues. It’s an exciting staff to work with and it’s something I feel like I can add different elements to whether we’re talking about defense or power play or just other things with dealing with star players and just how to maximize them. That’s the fun part: trying to get those players and our team over the hump and becoming in the elite again here.
Before coming back here were there any other options that you were weighing?
Todd Reirden: There was some conversations certainly after I was let go by the Capitals from some other teams as well. This was immediate and they were extremely aggressive after getting permission having conversations and interviews with Mike and Jim. I was just drawn to them by their detail, their passion, their excitement for getting back to Cup days of a few years ago and having a new voice yet someone who the players were familiar with and strong relations with, especially the core group of players here. I think it was something that just seemed to go full circle and the way it happened here was a perfect fit for everyone involved. Me, I obviously still need to learn and grow and improve and learned a lot of lessons as head coach of Washington, and looking forward to learning from Mike Sullivan and the success he’s had, winning back-to-back championships. Certainly, it’s been a challenge going against him the last six years on the opposite bench. It’s always a unique perspective when you’re able to bring some knowledge of different teams over to another one. I respect that organization and that team so much with what they’ve accomplished. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
All four coaches are former WBS Penguins coaches. How did that help prepare you?
Todd Reirden: That time in Wilkes-Barre was definitely helped form me into who I am today. Obviously, in those days you just had the two coaches on the bench and a video assistant. You went to work. Your goal in how you were being evaluated was the development of players. I think that’s really the thing that’s stuck with me the most is that desire to improve players, to make them better. Certainly, that’s something I’m extremely passionate about. I wear that passion on my sleeve when I’m working with these players and my desire to make them as good as they can. In that situation, it was to make them NHL players. But it’s such a great situation down there… It’s certainly turned out amazing how many coaches have come out of Wilkes-Barre and gone on to NHL success. I’m proud to have said to coached there and worked there and look forward to going down there to watch games and watch some young players and reconnect with everybody.
Like I said, this organization from top to bottom is first class, and certainly, I’m a faithful guy in this regard in terms of my loyalty. I remember the people that gave me my first chance and when they thought it was a good fit for me to come back, there was no doubt in my mind it was time to return the favor and come back and share some of the things I’ve learned.
The Penguins have a well-established top-four in Letang, Dumoulin, Pettersson, and Marino. What are your initial impressions of that group?
Todd Reirden: Kris, obviously, we spent a lot of time together. I’ve also coached Brian as well. I’m really excited (about) working with those two. I’m not surprised to see Kris have continued success over the years but Brian Dumoulin is a guy that continues to get better and better every year. It was disappointing for the Penguins to not have him healthy this year. I think that was one of the things that made things more difficult. He’s really blossomed into a good defender and adds more offensive tools to his game. In addition, his leadership, you can see it. When you’re on the opposite bench, you can see certain guys who take charge of situations and he’s one of them. I think the combination of Marcus and Marino are interesting to me. They are players that I’m not that familiar with. Obviously, I’ve watched many game films of them and know their tendencies and details. That’s a really strong top four. To me, you have Jack Johnson, who I think had a decent year this year. He fits in as a nice third-pairing d-man. Beyond that, there’s going to be some movement that goes on. There’s a lot of competition for spots and new players that have been acquired. Those are guys who I look forward to evaluating. Certainly the makes of three good pairings there and trying to figure out who works best with who.
How has being a head coach changed your perspective of the league as a whole and has it given you a different perspective on what it means to be a good assistant coach having seen it from a different standpoint?
Todd Reirden: It’s so important to have the right staff as a head coach and have common vision, common ground, same expectations, and are driven. If you don’t have those types of people on your staff, then you’re going to have a difficult time having success in this league. I was fortunate to have that in Washington, with winning the last five division titles. It’s something we were able to figure out in the regular season and something we struggled with in the postseason. Me coming into this situation learning from both Mike Sullivan and Mike Vellucci, guys who have won championships as head coaches regardless of the league, will help me grow as a coach as well. It’s certainly something I worked hard for. I was eager to get the chance to be a head coach. I thought I was prepared and obviously feel things went well, regular season-wise but came up short in the postseason and that’s why I need to step back here and rebuild my own personal game so when I get that opportunity (again) I’m that much more prepared next time to go through things. For me, this was the best spot to do that. I’m really excited and eager to get going and happy to be back in Pittsburgh that was so special to my family and I. We’re excited about the next opportunity.
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