The couch lives against the near wall in Todd Reirden’s new office, between a sparsely filled bookshelf and a small file cabinet, beneath a framed picture of his family posing with the Stanley Cup and a master schedule for the ‘18-19 season. It is a perfectly nice piece of furniture, black leather with comfy seating, three Washington Capitals logos monogrammed into the back cushions. It might also be the most critical teaching tool that Reirden, rookie head coach of the defending champions, employs on a regular basis. To him, everything comes back to the couch.
See, the couch confuses hockey players at first. They are used to sitting through meetings in stiff chairs, separated from their coaches by a deep wooden desk. “But if you study how people learn,” Reirden says, “they learn better when they’re relaxed.” And so he requests that visitors plop down. Kick back. Get comfortable. Only then does he start talking shop, plugging his MacBook into the mounted television across the room and pulling up a batch of clips.
“It’s not the old-school, boss-employee style,” Reirden says. “There has to be an openness in that situation. When you’re uptight and not comfortable, you don’t take information in. To me, the couch allows the player to understand that we’re working together to make them better.”
Michal Kempny knows about the couch. When the slick-skating blueliner arrived in a trade last Feb., cast aside from Chicago with his NHL career on life support, he would only sit on the very edge, nervous about having entered an unfamiliar situation. Then residing in his old office as the Capitals’ associate coach, responsible for overseeing their defensemen and power play, Reirden balked. “You don’t have to today,” he told Kempny. “But when we start to make gains is when you sit back.” So Kempny sat back. And every day for the next two weeks, he returned for extra film study. Their progress was swift; Kempny averaged 17:42 during the playoffs on a pair with John Carlson and signed a four-year extension on June 29.
An even bigger announcement landed later that day: By officially promoting Reirden to replace outgoing bench boss Barry Trotz, Washington became only the fourth team in 30 years to change coaches after capturing the Cup. It was the culmination of a rapid climb for Reirden, a journeyman minor-league defenseman whose face remains pockmarked with battle scars, including remnants of the 40 stitches from a one-timer that nearly tore off his nose. After retirement, Reirden spent one one year at his alma mater, Bowling Green, before joining the Penguins organization in ‘08-09 as an AHL assistant. A decade later, he has been handed the keys as the Capitals (2-2-1 thru Tuesday) steer toward a repeat run.
"It’s a tough question to answer," Reirden says. "Where you would improve when you just won the Stanley Cup?"
To be clear, Reirden is hardly some couch potato coach. During late-night bus rides with Pittsburgh’s minor-league affiliate, then-assistant John Hynes would watch Reirden furiously break down film until he fell asleep … only to wake up 20 minutes later and keep going. “He wouldn’t put it down,” says Hynes, now the Devils coach. "First guy at the rink, last guy to leave."
Former Penguins assistant Tony Granato, meanwhile, marvels at Reirden’s exhaustive database of hockey footage, which he always seems to have ready. “All systems, all players, all individual skills, every situation he’s ever taught or brought up for a pre-scout,” says Granato, the University of Wisconsin coach who led Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics. “He’ll never be underprepared. He’s done the homework. He’s tried to figure out everything that might happen.”
Just ask the Capitals' captain. One day Reirden was strolling through the locker room when Alex Ovechkin flagged him down and motioned to the MacBook tucked under his arm. “Got something for me?” Ovechkin asked, more playful than serious. “As a matter of fact,” Reirden replied, opening the laptop and queuing a game sequence to Ovechkin’s surprise, “I do.”
Rather than subject players to snooze-inducing video sessions, Reirden prefers stealing small, easily digestible chunks of time throughout the day. Four minutes over breakfast. Two before warmups. Five to seven clips, in and out, bing-bang-boom. “I’m not an hour-and-a-half video guy,” he says. “Now, I will watch an hour and a half with guys. If they want a full recap, me watching every shift with them, I’ll do that. I can go whatever avenue that player’s feeling.”
To Reirden, the modern hockey coach must listen. Recalling how Sidney Crosby once recommended that the Penguins should spend more time on skill development, feeling that his fundamentals waned over an 82-game schedule, Reirden solicited input from several Capitals before inviting skills coach Dwayne Blais to run part of a recent practice. “I already had that set up, regardless of whether we would’ve won or lost,” says Reirden. “But the players didn’t know when he was coming. It just added a little excitement, changing up in a different voice.”
On a tactical level, Reirden has hardly fussed with success. The Capitals still deploy an infuriating 1-3-1 neutral zone system with a right-wing lock, which emphasizes the defensive strengths of their forwards on that side. Their power play still haunts opposing goalies, converting at 36.8% through five games, fourth in the league. The free-agency departure of shorthanded savant Jay Beagle caused Reirden to tweak Washington’s penalty kill—welcome aboard, Evgeny Kuznetsov!—but little else looks different from the group that returns 18 of 20 skaters from its Game 5 clincher against Vegas. “How we’re built to play works perfectly with the system we have,” Reirden says.
Even so, Reirden treated training camp as though these concepts were brand-new. A Chicago-area native and big Bulls fan, he researched how other championship teams had approached their post-victory season, devouring biographies of Phil Jackson and John Wooden, phoning fellow coaches from the NHL and other sports (whom he declines to name for privacy purposes). One major takeaway: “You shouldn’t forget that players aren’t spending the whole summer studying systems,” he says. “Regardless of the success you have, you have to go back to square one and teach again. Despite the fact that a lot of them had seen some version of how our team was going to play, it was very important for me to start at the very beginning.”
Details. Reirden is all about those. He could’ve half-assed the official interview with general manager Brian MacLellan during development camp in late-June, forgone conclusion as it seemed that he would replace Trotz. Instead he entered MacLellan’s office lugging a laptop loaded with clips that showed his teaching philosophies, plus a playbook and binder of team concepts that Reirden had fashioned himself. “We’d never had those here,” Reirden says. “It was a combination of all those things put into writing, if you wanted to see them.”
In a sense, Reirden had spent the past four years auditioning anyway. He only interviewed for one other head coaching job, finishing as a finalist when Calgary hired Glen Gulutzan in June ‘16, albeit not for lack of interest: Twelve months later, overtures from both Arizona and Buffalo were rebuffed due to a clause in Reirden’s contract extension, which had promoted him to associate coach but prohibited other teams from making contact outside of a narrow window each offseason. “I didn’t know if he was going to be a head coach with us or someone else, depending on timing,” MacLellan says. “It just worked out the way it did for him to stay.”
Lucky thing, too. Eleven days after Trotz resigned, two days after meeting with MacLellan, Washington’s new head coach was announced after a painless, one-man search. “A lot of screaming and yelling was going on in our house of happiness,” Reirden says, recalling how wife Shelby and son Travis reacted when he delivered the news. “With the amount of time and the number of places we’ve moved and the sacrifice by them, it was a great story for all of us.”
And a perfectly fluid transition for the Capitals so far. Reirden didn’t jet to Moscow and visit Ovechkin like his predecessor, but they spoke several times over the summer on the phone, chatting about everything from training camp fitness tests to how Ovechkin had become the first Russian captain etched into the Stanley Cup. “We know him as a coach for years, right?” Ovechkin says of Reirden. “He didn’t change. He’s the same. It was very important for us.”
There have been subtle differences between regimes, of course. The coaching staff wears dark-blue tracksuits at practice instead of red now, a coincidental switch if not symbolic. Niskanen notes that intermission speeches have felt especially fresh under Reirden, who might deliver a tactical message after the first period and then a rousing hype speech before the third. (Or, as was the case when Washington got waxed by New Jersey, 6-0, he might decline to enter the locker room altogether.) “Part of being a coach is system stuff and details, and he’s really good at that,” Niskanen says. “But other situations are about reading your team’s energy level or attitude. He might have a better finger on the pulse than some.”
A communications major at Bowling Green, Reirden thrived in the “good cop” role as an assistant, earning trust by fostering personal relationships. It explains how Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang developed into a steady top-10 Norris Trophy finisher over Reirden’s four seasons there. And why Carlson is currently traveling along similar tracks, eclipsing 50 assists for the first time in ‘17-18. But now that Reirden must manage an entire roster—as opposed to eight blueliners, max—it is fair to wonder how this ethos translates. “He’s going to have to figure out a certain style,” MacLellan says. “He’s always done well with defensemen, but it’s always been more of a communication-based, methodical plan. I don't know how star players respond. But I think he should be able to handle it or figure it out as we go here.”
For his part, Reirden is still settling into the gig’s rhythms. He has prioritized keeping things fresh, scheduling a team excursion to the resort town of Whistler, B.C., during their upcoming swing through western Canada, inviting Blais back for another stint at the end of the month. He hasn’t conducted as many drive-by video sessions, instead delegating to new assistants Scott Arniel and Reid Cashman, but expects that those will resume soon. By the same token, he still needs to schedule individual meetings with most of the Capitals’ forwards, so they too can come plop down, kick back and talk hockey.
“He’s the boss, but he doesn’t have to come off like that all the time,” NIskanen says. “Go into his office, sit on the couch, going over things on the whiteboard or on video … that’s a little thing, but it sends a message: We’re in this together.”