There’s no shame in losing to the New York Islanders, but there was definitely something off with the Washington Capitals in falling to the Isles in the first round of the playoffs. And now the first domino has fallen, with GM Brian MacLellan relieving coach Todd Reirden of his duties Sunday morning.
Reirden helmed the Caps for the past two seasons, taking over for Stanley Cup-winning bench boss Barry Trotz – who is now coaching those same Islanders. Under Reirden, Washington finished first in the Metropolitan Division both seasons, but also bailed out of the playoffs in the first round both times, as well.
So what happens now? The Capitals are in a strange place, as the franchise has many veteran players on long-term contracts (center Nicklas Backstrom’s new five-year pact doesn’t even kick in until next year and comes with a $9.2 million cap hit, for example), but this core seems to be moving away from another title run. Perhaps a new voice behind the bench can alter that course.
“We have higher expectations for our team,” MacLellan said. “And we felt a fresh approach in leadership was necessary.”
There was also the fact the Capitals were a defensive mess down the stretch, something that didn’t really improve once the Return to Play tournament began. Some of that was personnel – I believe the Capitals missed defenseman Matt Niskanen (traded to Philadelphia last summer for fellow blueliner Radko Gudas) a lot more than they anticipated – but some of that has to fall on the coaching staff, as well.
Should MacLellan seek to go the recycling route, there is no shortage of high-profile candidates: Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette and Mike Babcock are all out there and any of them are capable of wringing out a couple more effective seasons with this Washington core.
In terms of an organizational replacement for Reirden, Washington could make a bold move by promoting AHL Hershey coach Spencer Carbery to the post. Carbery, 38, has only been in charge of the Bears for two seasons, but has already worked a variety of jobs in pro hockey and done a nice job in Hershey. This year, the Bears’ defense ranked third in the league, jumping up from middle-of-the-pack in Carbery’s first campaign.
As a developer, Carbery is attentive: he has been teaching young prospects such as Brett Leason and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby how to round out their games, while D-man Martin Fehervary made his Stanley Cup playoff debut this season, getting into two matches for Washington.
Is there risk in going with a young guy? Sure, but there is also the opportunity to build up an internal asset and potentially unlocking the next great coaching mind. Jeremy Colliton is even younger than Carbery and he just helped Chicago upset Edmonton in the qualifying round. And in terms of experience, Jared Bednar didn’t have a whole lot more than Carbery when he took over the job in Colorado – and now the Avs are a Cup contender.
Outside the organization, I have to wonder if Washington will kick the tires on Mike Vellucci. The former AHL Charlotte coach won the Calder Cup with the Checkers in 2019 and currently helms the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Now, the complication there is that Vellucci might be in line for an assistant coaching job with Pittsburgh under Mike Sullivan after the Penguins cleared the decks recently. Would Pittsburgh prefer Vellucci stick around, in case Sullivan himself gets the axe in the near-future? The Capitals are one of their biggest rivals, after all, and Vellucci is a valuable asset.
Having said that, teams generally don’t block staffers from getting better jobs with other organizations and head coach of the Caps would obviously be a step up from assistant coach of the Pens. The only fly in the ointment on that front is that Vellucci is also GM of the Baby Pens; not sure how that factors into everything.
Whichever route MacLellan goes, he does have time on his side. The Capitals can wait and see how the dust settles on this season before making their choice and there are many solid candidates to choose from. Really, the next big decision will be about pending free agent goalie Braden Holtby.