- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The new coach behind the Washington Capitals’ bench will tower over it. At 6-foot-5, Todd Reirden is built like the ideal defenseman, the position he used to play. He’s also eight inches taller than his predecessor, Barry Trotz, though height doesn’t count when you measure the size of the shadow Reirden is emerging from this year.

Whenever the Capitals have been asked about the adjustment to playing under Reirden — and they’ve been asked quite a lot — their answers haven’t been gripping. Because Reirden isn’t new to most of these players, the transition has been so smooth it’s sometimes bordered on boring.

But more than a few players have taken note of one of Reirden’s strengths.

“(Reirden) is so good at creating relationships with people and talking things out, and that’s the thing that I think I like the best,” T.J. Oshie said. “He likes to hear from the players, what they think, especially the older guys and the guys that are in the leadership group.”

“He has those relationships with players that have been developed over the last few years,” Tom Wilson said. “He respects the guys, we respect him and that’s first and foremost.”

Even new additions to the team like Nic Dowd, who haven’t played for him till now, are quick to point it out. “An open, easy guy to talk to, which can be challenging from a head coach’s perspective, I’m sure,” Dowd said.

This is the man who will lead the Capitals into their first-ever Stanley Cup defense, a communicator who treats each player as an individual, invested in reaching and developing them.

“I think that’s today’s player — they need to have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them, and a path to have success in accomplishing that,” Reirden told The Washington Times. “There’s good times and bad times in that. … It’s not all a perfect plan. It’s gonna take some work and it’s a long season, and it’s important, I think, to let players know that you’re involved in what they’re trying to do.”

When a new year of hockey begins Wednesday night, the Capitals will be the fifth team in NHL history to enter a season as defending champions with a different coach behind the bench, whether the previous coach retired or switched teams.

In Washington’s case, Trotz resigned shortly after the Cup Final because he felt he could be paid better than what the Capitals were offering him in a contract extension. He took the same position with the New York Islanders.

Luckily for the Capitals, their associate coach was an ideal in-house candidate, whom general manager Brian MacLellan said he had “all the faith in the world” in to succeed Trotz.

Reirden appeared in 183 NHL games for four teams and played in Germany and Austria before launching his coaching career. He spent time in the Penguins’ organization, including as coach of their AHL affiliate, before joining Trotz’s staff in Washington in 2014 to focus on the blueliners. Men he’s coached alongside remembered him as a creative mind, and someone who could talk to both the elite-level players and the final names on a depth chart with equal effect.

For an example of Reirden’s style in action, look to third-line winger Andre Burakovsky, who has been open about working with a sports psychologist to deal with self-confidence issues. Trotz benched Burakovsky while he was in a slump last winter.

“I’m sort of just trying to get his attention a little bit,” Trotz said at the time.

In this year’s first preseason game, when Alex Ovechkin and most other veterans did not play, Reirden took the opportunity to name Burakovsky one of his alternate captains. The decision was no small deal.

“We’ve connected a few times,” Reirden said. “Putting a letter on his jersey for (that) game was important for him to understand the confidence that we have in him and how bad we need him to continue to grow as a player.”

Of course, the coach is fueled by more than player relationships; it extends to the relationships with his family and the sport of hockey itself. His love for both is evident whenever he recounts his day with the Stanley Cup in July.

Reirden took the Cup to Valparaiso, Indiana, where he and his wife Shelby lived for 12 years, and nearby Crown Point, where their son Travis was born. In an effort to grow the game in Northwest Indiana, Reirden spent part of his day letting local teams pose for photos with the Cup, in turn having them donate hockey equipment to the rink.

“Clearly no one has ever brought the Stanley Cup to those towns, so I knew it was something that was important for me to share,” Reirden said. “Initially you try to plan the day you hope can obviously be an amazing day for your family and your friends and people that have helped you accomplish that day and had involvement in accomplishing that day. But it’s also a great, great vehicle to kind of push some certain causes and some things that you believe in, in a positive direction.”

Reirden also stays thankful for his family who supported him through his journeyman professional career, both playing and coaching.

“It would have been a very difficult journey to do on my own,” he said. “I’ve just had a lot of really good support around me to help me accomplish, like I said, amazing lifelong goals of playing as a player in the NHL and now being a head coach in this league. It’s been a battle that started when I left home when I was 16 years old to play hockey, and I’ve lived in many spots in many different countries to try to form the person I am today.”

Don’t mistake Reirden for a softy.

“There’s certainly no misunderstanding, I’m the coach and they’re the player,” he said. “But at the end of the day we’re in this together. Individually, as our players can continue to improve, then overall our team will continue to grow as well.”

How much can a defending champ grow? Many new coaches in the sports world take over bad teams in need of a new direction, but Reirden’s case is the opposite.

But maybe the best way to get even more out of the Capitals is to have someone from the Stanley Cup run carry the mantle.

“What a guy Trotzie is. He’s going to be missed, but he’s on the other side now,” Oshie said. “We got a new year going and I’m excited to play for [Reirden] and just see what he has in store for the guys. It’s going to be a fresh voice for us – even though he had a lot of say before.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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