The decline started around Christmas. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said he first noticed his team’s play start to “deteriorate” then. Over the next few months, things didn’t get any better, leading to a disappointing first-round playoff exit for Washington for the second straight year.
So after returning from the NHL’s bubble in Toronto, MacLellan made a decision: Todd Reirden had to go.
The Capitals fired Reirden, 49, on Sunday and are now searching for a new head coach again, just two years after the franchise let veteran Barry Trotz go and elevated then-assistant Reirden.
The first-time head coach was tasked with taking over a squad he’d helped lead to the franchise’s first-ever title. But in two seasons, the Capitals were bounced from the playoffs in the first round — most recently by Reirden’s old boss, Trotz, and his new team, the Islanders.
“We have had a good culture here and it is starting to slip,” MacLellan said. “We need to grab ahold of it and get it back to where it was.”
MacLellan said Washington will look to hire a coach with experience — a tack markedly different from the approach usually taken during the Alex Ovechkin era. Since drafting Ovechkin in 2004, the Capitals have had six coaches. All but Trotz have been first-timers.
But with the Capitals’ window for a championship narrowing — Ovechkin is 35 and entering the last year of his contract — MacLellan said Washington needs an experienced coach for an experienced group. Someone who will “push some buttons,” he said.
Over the past two seasons, team executives came to the conclusion Reirden wasn’t the man to do that.
Washington enjoyed regular-season success, winning back-to-back division titles and going 89-46-16. But MacLellan said the Capitals became too inconsistent under Reirden and lacked the habits necessary to win on a consistent basis.
That proved to be especially true in the playoffs. Last year, Washington lost in a seven-game series to the Carolina Hurricanes and this season, the Capitals looked lifeless, falling in five games to New York. Even before play halted because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Capitals were in a downward spiral — going 8-9-3 in their last 20 regular-season games.
“One thing that happened for us in the bubble is our structure didn’t seem to be there,” MacLellan said. “We couldn’t find team structure. I know individuals were working hard individually, but as a team, a team structure, resulted or was a big cause of our performance in Toronto. We’re going to need someone that can come in and establish that as a big part of our identity.”
In a 20-minute online press conference Sunday, MacLellan was asked multiple times about Trotz. While the general manager expressed disappointment the Capitals couldn’t agree on a deal two years ago with Trotz, he did not say it was a mistake.
MacLellan said he thought Reirden was the right man for the job, given his ties as an assistant coach and his track record for development.
Money was an issue. Trotz left Washington and signed a five-year, $20 million deal — making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league. On Sunday, MacLellan said that Washington had no problem with paying Trotz “market level,” but had issue with the length of the deal.
Washington now looks for a coach who can have the kind of impact that Trotz had on Washington years ago. Notable veteran coaches on the market include Mike Babock, Gerald Gallant, Peter Laviolette and former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.
“Ownership is open if it makes sense to spend money on a coach,” he said.
MacLellan said he thinks Washington’s roster can still compete for a championship. He called the team’s top-six forwards — a group that includes Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson — among the best of the league.
He noted the Capitals have a Norris Trophy candidate in defenseman John Carlson, and he highlighted some of Washington’s younger talent.
The Capitals’ roster next season could be infused with youth, as well. Illya Samsonov seems poised to take over as Washington’s starting goaltender as Braden Holtby is a free agent and MacLellan seemed pessimistic about a potential return.
MacLellan said Washington’s direction hasn’t changed.
“We’re going try and find the best (coach) we can,” he said. “Experience will be a factor. And somebody that can hold people accountable and work within a team concept.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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