The day began with a cup of coffee. Eleven years ago, Todd Reirden wasn’t an associate coach for the Washington Capitals, like he is today. Back then, he was just a guy looking for a job.
So, coffee it was.
In the spring of 2007, Reirden met with then-Bowling Green coach Scott Paluch to discuss an open assistant’s job at his alma mater. Reirden, a journeyman player in professional hockey, was looking to make the transition to coaching.
The two toured the campus and reconnected — Paluch had been an assistant at Bowling Green when Reirden played there in the early 1990s.
Reirden got the job.
“Todd jumped into it,” Paluch said. “The one thing that was always there was a commitment to learn and a commitment to get better. “
That commitment has helped Reirden accelerate through the coaching ranks — and he is now the front-runner to take over the Capitals after Barry Trotz stepped down Monday.
General manager Brian MacLellan said Monday that Reirden — a “good candidate” for the position — was at the top of the team’s list. He added Reirden, who coached from college to the minors to the NHL before joining Trotz’s staff in 2014, could be a “natural transition.”
It’s a transition with roots that go back even further than that day at Bowling Green.
Always the underdog
A former defenseman, Reirden had an up-and-down playing career. Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1990 in the 12th round, he elected instead to play in college at Bowling Green as a walk-on.
Four years later, he turned pro and spent years bouncing between the minors, Europe and the NHL. Reirden appeared in 183 NHL games in five seasons. For the last two years of his career, he played overseas in Germany and Austria.
The experience helped Reirden relate to the demands a hockey career places on players.
“He was kind of the underdog his whole career,” said Doug Schueller, who was an assistant alongside Reirden at Bowling Green. “He can communicate with players who are at a really high level, but he can talk to the players that are trying to fight their way into getting into the next level.”
Schueller said Reirden got along especially well with the defensemen who had aspirations of turning pro.
“He was great talking to young players coming up, but for him, he almost wanted to talk to them too much,” Schueller said. “Sometimes calling [recruits] every week or twice a week, which is not in NCAA rules, was sometimes hard for him not to do. He just wanted to continue to help and to mentor young players.”
MacLellan made it clear he wanted the Capitals’ next coach to be someone who’s “up-to-date” on the modern game.
Reirden would seem to check that box. He climbed the coaching ladder quickly in part because of his devotion to learning the nuances of the game.
And Reirden, according to his old college coach Paluch, will never be outdone from a preparation standpoint.
University of Wisconsin coach Tony Granato said Reirden is always searching for a better way.
“He’s not afraid to look outside the box and try to be creative, as opposed to just going to what everybody else does,” said Granato, an assistant with Reirden in Pittsburgh. “He’s an innovator that way.”
Reirden, who is close with former Pittsburgh coach and college teammate Dan Bylsma, spent four seasons with the Penguins — being promoted in 2010 after a season-plus stint as head coach in the minors.
After the Penguins fired him in 2014, the Capitals scooped him up. As in Pittsburgh, Reirden was given responsibility for developing the defensemen.
Reirden gets results. Since he came on board, the Capitals have ranked as the NHL’s sixth-best defense in shots against per game (29.3) and second-best in goals allowed (2.45) since 2014. Individual players, like Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson, have blossomed under his tutelage.
Recognizing his value, Washington took steps to keep him on staff. After Reirden was a finalist for the Calgary Flames vacancy in 2016, the Capitals promoted him from assistant to associate coach. Washington prevented Reirden from interviewing with the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres last summer.
With Trotz’s contract status uncertain, Reirden was always the insurance.
“We’ve been grooming him to be a head coach whether for us or for someone else,” MacLellan said. “We’ll see how the talk goes with him and then we’ll make a decision based on that. If it goes well, then we’ll pursue Todd, and if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”