Defensive Disappointment: The Capitals’ Defensive Struggles This Season Uncharacteristic Under Todd Reirden

nhl reirden
Photo: NHL

Heading into this season, there was a mixture of both uncertainty and assurance when it came to the Capitals’ coaching staff, specifically first-year Head Coach Todd Reirden. With an all-but identical roster to the one that captured the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in June 2018, the expectation was that the transition would be an easy one. And while the team has at times looked similar to the one that captured Lord Stanley’s mug last summer, one area in which the team has looked unusually weak at many times this season, is in the defensive zone. And given Reirden’s reputation as a defensive guru, it is both disappointing and uncharacteristic.

During his first four season with the Capitals as an Assistant and Associate Coach under former bench boss Barry Trotz (as well as during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins), Reirden worked wonders with defenseman such as Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, and current Capitals Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Christian Djoos, transforming Carlson into one of the league’s best blueliners in the process. Reirden was also responsible for running the team’s penalty kill, one of the weakest facets of the 2018-19 Capitals.

In the four years under Trotz (and Reirden’s tutelage), the Capitals ranked (excluding the Vegas Golden Knights, who are only in their second season of play) second of 30 teams in total Goals Against, allowing 805 (second to the Los Angeles Kings’ 792). They also ranked second in 5-on-5 Goals Against with 532 (second to only Los Angeles’ 516). During those same four seasons, the Capitals allowed an averaged of 2.45 Goals Against per Game, second again to Los Angeles. During those four seasons, the Capitals had a combined 82.6% penalty kill percentage, which ranked sixth of the 30 teams (again, excluding the Vegas Golden Knights).

This season, the Capitals heading into February 13, rank 22nd in Goals Against in all situations with 182, 23rd in 5-on-5 Goals Against with 120, and rank 21st allowing an average of 3.19 Goals Against Per Game. Their Penalty Kill has been downright abysmal, currently ranked 23rd having killed just 78.6% of the power play opportunities against. The chart below shows the ranks in Reirden’s four years as an Assistant/Associate Coach and how they compare to them currently as Head Coach (note that the additions of Reid Cashman and Scott Arniel as assistants may have changed coaching responsibilities this season, though it is likely Reirden has retained some input as Head Coach), as well as their change in rank.

 Capitals Defensive Stats 2014-15 to 2017-18 with NHL Rank (excluding VGK)
Goals Against (all situations) Goals Against (5v5) Goals Against Per Game Penalty Kill %
805 (2nd) 532 (2nd) 2.45 (2nd) 82.6% (6th)
Capitals Defensive Stats 2018-19 Season
Goals Against (all situations) Goals Against (5v5) Goals Against Per Game Penalty Kill %
182 (22nd) 120 (23rd) 3.19 (21st) 78.6% (23rd)
Difference in Rank
Goals Against (all situations) Goals Against (5v5) Goals Against Per Game Penalty Kill %
-20 -21 -19 -17

The dramatic drop in performance defensively and in regards to the Penalty Kill is highly troubling and uncharacteristic of the units under Reirden. As mentioned above, the additions of Arniel and Cashman will almost certainly have shifted responsibilities somewhat, but given how involved Reirden was under Trotz, it would be surprising if Reirden has not retained some input. The personnel of the team certainly hasn’t changed much, and several blueliners’ performance have arguably regressed somewhat this season. Niskanen, who has been a plus-player in each of his prior four season in Washington, is a minus-9 this season, and after finishing three of his first four seasons with a Corsi For pecentage 50 or more, has a career-low 45.4% this season. Orlov, like Niskanen, was a plus-player in each of his prior seasons under Reirden’s tutelage, is also a minus-9 and also has a career-worst 47.0 Corsi For Percentage.

If the Capitals are to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in a few months time, the biggest area in which they will need to improve is defensively. Goals are harder to come by in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Caps will find themselves in trouble if they do not improve in their own end and on the penalty kill. And given their prior performance with Reirden in some capacity behind the bench, their breakdown this season is troubling and arguably inexcusable. While they have plenty of time to correct the mistakes being made, it is something that will need to be corrected fast of they are to remain competitive come April.

By Michael Fleetwood

About Michael Fleetwood

Michael Fleetwood was born into a family of diehard Capitals fans and has been watching games as long as he can remember. He was born the year the Capitals went to their first Stanley Cup Final, and is a diehard Caps fan, the owner of the very FIRST Joe Beninati jersey and since then, has met Joe himself. Michael joined the NoVa Caps team in 2015, and is most proud of the growth of the NoVa Caps community in that time. An avid photographer, Michael resides in VA.
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