The season reviews are all over, but maybe could we spare a moment to discuss Todd Reirden?
Reirden was dismissed as head coach after the Capitals’ disastrous defeat at the hands of their former coach, Barry Trotz, and his New York Islanders. Given the scale of that loss, the decision to fire Reirden seems justified for that reason alone. But when Brian Maclellan discussed the problems of the Reirden administration with the media, he was more expansive.
“I think first year he did a good job,” MacLellan told the press in August. “There was some stuff that we tried to work through. I think probably Christmas this year you could see the style of play deteriorate. Our team game wasn’t as good as it had been. It was going in the wrong direction. Our compete level was in and out. We had some inconsistencies.”
That’s interesting to me. While I certainly agree that the Caps under Reirden were inconsistent, they no more so than in the final season of Barry Trotz’s reign. Below is the difference in expected goals (i.e. how many Washington generated minus their opponents) during Reirden’s tenure. Higher is better. These are 20-game running averages, and I’ve annotated a few milestones.
There are peaks and valleys here, but even more so there is a trend: upwards. I want to briefly make the case that the Capitals actually got appreciably better under Todd Reirden in a few important ways. Starting with the easy one– standings points.
Prorating 2019-20 to 82 games, the Caps seemed to have not lost a step at amassing points during the regular season since their Cup win. That is — compared only to 2017-18, not the two seasons before that. We’ll come back to those in a moment.
Deeper than the standings, here are the last five seasons of the Capitals along with a bunch of color-coded five-on-five stats indicating how well the team drives play. Points again are at far right.
During even strength, the Caps floated around 51-52 percent in all stats, solidly in the black (or green by my color-coding). Some of us (I’m raising my hand) might have higher expectations for this roster, but at least there was improvement from 2018 to 2020. That improvement might be even better seen in these bar graphs below, which use the same data.
There’s a rub. The right-most group of bars is goals, which matter most, and which don’t trend the same as everything else. The 2019-20 Caps still were above 50 percent in goal-scoring during 5v5, but less so than any recent season. I think there are a few reasons why, but boring old PDO (a nonsensical acronym to represent semi-random fluctuations in a team’s shooting and saving percentages) explain a lot of it.
This past season saw the Caps shooting fine (for them, better than okay for most other teams), but their save percentage dropped below average for the first time in a million years as Braden Holtby slid into his thirties. These declines are not really driven by coaching.
Now, I don’t think Brian MacLellan fired his coach just because a great goalie finally became mortal, but I do think unfortunate goaltending masked the real — but not uniform — improvement with the team under Reirden.
In February, Kevin Klein wrote a column at Japers Rink about how Reid Cashman had stewarded the Caps’ defense poorly. Kevin was entirely right, though I have a hard time seeing the start of 2018-19 (and the beginning of Cashman’s defense) as the inflection point. For me it was one year earlier — before the Caps began their Cup-winning season, when Trotz was head coach and Reirden was in charge of defense. That was also the summer the team lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, and Daniel Winnik. After three years of regular-season success, the Capitals of the 2017-18 season were pretty bad — until all of a sudden they weren’t.
The data below is the same as the first graph (expected goal difference over time), but over a much larger span of time– a full decade.
We can all agree that the post-Boudreau/pre-Trotz era was bad Caps hockey, and it’s undeniable that the team got better in every way when Trotz came to town. But we can probably all also stipulate that the team’s roster got a lot better at that same time as well. One way I like to note that roster improvement is to see how the Caps performed when their 1C, Nicklas Backstrom, is sitting on the bench. That’s the dark blue line below.
The team got a lot better from 2013-14 to 2014-15, but then there was that precarious drop from 51.7 percent in 2016-17 to 46.0 percent in 2017-18, driven mostly (in my opinion) by less reliable defensive depth (think Schmidt to Bowey) and the loss of Johansson and Williams on the second line. The Caps were again in the black during non-Backstrom shifts in 2019-20, thanks in part to an excellent fourth line.
I suspect the conventional wisdom is to over-ascribe the improvements of 2014-15 to Trotz instead of MacLellan and to miss ascribing the decline of 2017-18 to Trotz (because the Cup win overrides it). To me, the Capitals’ decline began in the summer of 2017, driven by roster changes and presided over by Barry Trotz, but not necessarily his fault. But that decline got totally obscured by a significant trade-deadline upgrade and that beautiful championship run. (I’m not complaining about that.) Then Reirden took over in awkward circumstances and began modest but clear improvements in most areas (goaltending and power-play aside) during the regular season, which got further obscured by two very bad postseasons.
Reirden should have acted sooner to make a change to the team’s defensive style and breakout tactics — replacing Cashman in midseason would have been welcome — but it’s also clear that Reirden did not have the defensive talent he expected. He tried eleven different defensive pairings for at least 60 minutes, evidence of experimentation and maybe desperation. So while the team did struggle — especially in December, but also again in February — and while they had tangible flaws in their style of play that led to inconsistency, they were not why Todd Reirden got fired.
This is why Todd Reirden got fired:
Following a championship with just four postseason wins in two postseasons.
Don’t get me wrong. That humiliation in the bubble in Toronto was unacceptable and warranted a change, but if we individualize that failing to Todd Reirden alone I think we’d be doing a disservice to both him and ourselves. We’d lose the big picture of the Washington Capitals — an imperfect team with elite potential but who need a few pieces, some tactical adjustments, and more accountability. We’ve seen the Capitals overreact and misdiagnose postseason heartbreak before; the loss to Montreal in 2010 led inexorably to the misery of the Hunter and Oates administrations (which you can see in that one line graph above). This team cannot win by merely getting bigger and angrier and more stout. They also need to get faster — both on their skates and in their passes. They need diversity in their defensive talent rather than just duplicating one large guy who blocks shots and used to be able to backcheck against top talent two seasons ago. They need young forwards who can grow into top-six roles. And they need a real second-line center.
That’s all doable, but none of it is done merely by removing Todd Reirden, who was a good head coach and will be one again.
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