What do the Washington Capitals miss about former head coach Barry Trotz?
"Is there anything I miss about him?" responded defenseman John Carlson, mulling over his answer. "That's an interesting one."
It's the same rhetorical reaction one gets from several Capitals, including Alex Ovechkin, when asked about the man who coached them to the Stanley Cup before leaving for the New York Islanders over a contract dispute. It wasn't always sunshine between Trotz and these players, but there was respect.
"From a team perspective, he's been around for a while. Done a lot of great things in his career that we all learned from," Carlson said. "Although from a [defenseman's] perspective, not as much as forwards on the day-to-day stuff. We spent a lot more time with the defense coach than the guy calling the lines. That's just how it breaks down."
The "defense coach" ended up becoming the Capitals' new head coach: Todd Reirden, 47, who had been an assistant coach for Bowling Green University, won the Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was hired in 2014 by Trotz, and won a second Cup last season. He helped run their power play and orchestrated empty-net situations, but mostly he worked with the team's defensemen.
Asking Reirden to praise his predecessor elicits less consternation than when asking his players.
"For the most part, it's gone really smoothly, and that's a credit to Barry," Reirden told ESPN. "He involved all of our coaches, and in particular myself, with the delegating and responsibility. He would look to us for advice in various parts of the game. He often put me in a situation where he'd ask me what I would do if I were the head coach. Those were scenarios that I was [playing] through in my own mind, and it's gotten me ready for right now. I can't thank him enough for doing that."
Right now, the Capitals are in a funk: 3-5-2 in their past 10 games, having limped to the All-Star break in the midst of a seven-game winless streak. They also lost the lead in the Metro Division in the process -- to Trotz's Islanders, no less. This wasn't a scenario that Reirden could plan for, because this is their longest drought in five years. Hence, general manager Brian MacLellan sees this adversity as a teachable moment for his rookie coach.
"I can tick off all the boxes on his background and experience, but that's a box you can't tick off until you've experienced it. That's something people don't quite understand when it comes to a coach that hasn't had head-coaching experience yet," MacLellan said.
But Reirden is learning. When asked what he noticed has changed for Reirden during his first season as bench boss, MacLellan said he's realized whose voice should matter most -- his own. "In the beginning, he was looking for everyone's opinion. Making sure everyone's voice gets heard, making sure everyone's opinion is heard. But over time, I think he realized that it works better if the decisions aren't done that way," he said.
Moving a bit from a democracy to a dictatorship? Or more to the point, from an assistant coach who's a players' guy to being the guy that ticks them off?
"Exactly," MacLellan said. "And I think it's always been like that with assistant coaches that become head coaches. It's just something you learn."
So has the job changed Todd Reirden?
"I wouldn't categorize it as him being a hard-ass," Carlson said, smiling. "A lot of the stuff that we're doing, the mentality [from last year] is going to stay intact."
Defenseman Matt Niskanen worked with Reirden in Pittsburgh before they both moved over to the Capitals. "His personality definitely hasn't changed. It's still the same person who believes in a lot of the same things. But he just has to manage 23 guys now, instead of seven. He has to oversee everything now. He's the leader. It's his voice. It's his team now," he said.
"He was really good at being an assistant, a details guy. His real strength was helping individuals get better, and that still brings a little bit of that. He'll take younger players aside and tells them exactly what he wants. And that's what players want today. They want that clarity."
For example, Carlson was 24 years old when Reirden came on as an assistant coach, and MacLellan believes his influence is what turned the Capitals defenseman into a Norris Trophy contender who earned an eight-year contract extension last summer.
"Coaching against him was a really important part of knowing the player. I saw him a lot. I was very well aware of the strengths and weaknesses. At the time, John Carlson and Karl Alzner were the go-to guys to play against the Crosbys and the Malkins. In Pittsburgh, we were rolling out some really good offensive players. So I had a pulse on ways I could help improve John, because there were things that I knew he struggled with against our team," Reirden recalled. "I had a plan going forward with him to know what our biggest rival was doing to break down his game. We moved on step one of fixing those deficiencies. Things that maybe he didn't even realize he could do to affect the competition, with how he plays the puck and joins the rush in the zone. It was really a blessing in disguise that I had a chance to coach him so often."
For the Capitals defensemen he helped develop, having Reirden graduate to head coach was a blessing, too. But Niskanen said the NHL works differently than the NFL, in which coordinators who graduate to head-coaching status might still have a tighter bond with the players they specialized in coaching.
"I didn't see it that way. I mean, I've been with the guy for a long time, so I'm happy he got the opportunity, and I think he's doing a good job for us. I don't think there's going to be a split between the forwards and defense," Niskanen said.
It wasn't a worry for MacLellan, either.
"It was never a concern. Yes, he worked with a certain group of guys, but he was always involved in trying to make the team better overall. And his work on the power play, not only here but back in Pittsburgh, means he's learned how to communicate with star players," he said.
Reirden said he has strong relationships with many of the players, which has helped him "turn the page" from last season to his own regime.
"Barry couldn't have set me up for success better than he did. Nothing has surprised me very much," he said.
"That's the one thing Barry didn't prepare me for: losing guys to injury and suspension," he said with a laugh. "Last year, we didn't have any of this!"