ARLINGTON, Va. — Todd Reirden’s road to coaching started as a journeyman defenceman playing in the minors for Todd McLellan’s Houston Aeros during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Injured and at the tail end of his career, Reirden still wanted to make an impact, so McLellan assigned him coaching responsibilities with young players. It clicked.
“At that point, you could tell that he had coaching in his blood and that’s probably something that he wanted to do,” McLellan said.
Reirden went into coaching three years later, taking Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the American Hockey League’s playoffs twice and assisting Dan Bylsma on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ staff. After two more season as an assistant under Barry Trotz with the Washington Capitals, Reirden’s success is measurable in the progress made by Kris Letang, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and other defencemen.
NHL general managers are always looking for coaching’s next big thing, and Reirden has positioned himself to be just that this summer or next.
“He’s got great potential,” said McLellan, now coach of the Edmonton Oilers. “You look at his path from developing player early in his career and then his time in the minors, his stay at the national league level, some of the coaches he’s been around and the organizations he’s been through, his body of work, I think all of those qualities put him in a category that soon people will be talking about him as a future head coach.”
Reirden didn’t have the NHL head-coaching experience the Ottawa Senators or Minnesota Wild wanted when those teams hired Guy Boucher and Bruce Boudreau, respectively. The Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames currently have vacancies, and the 44-year-old coach from suburban Chicago would be an outside-the-box choice like John Hynes was a year ago for the New Jersey Devils.
Like Hynes, Reirden came up through the Penguins’ coaching ranks that also produced Bylsma and Mike Yeo. From Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Pittsburgh and Washington, Reirden has consciously taken steps to be a better assistant and, eventually, a better NHL head coach.
“My particular path has been a fairly quick one in terms of getting to the National Hockey League as an assistant, and it’s been a lot of learning on the job,” Reirden said. “An important part of learning is being a good listener, especially when you’re in an assistant coaching role and taking information in and for me learning what works and what doesn’t work sometimes and deciding how I want to utilize those positives and negatives I take from the situation in preparation for one day being a head coach in this league.”
One day isn’t far away. Reirden oversaw the fifth-ranked power play in the NHL this season and ran a defence that thrived despite injuries.
Trotz said Reirden deserves all the credit for the growth of young defencemen and called him “a really bright hockey mind.” That’s an opinion shared by many of his colleagues.
“I think he’s one of the best teaching coaches in our game,” said Bylsma, now coach of the Buffalo Sabres. “His ability to relate and teach and give players an opportunity to be better, I think he’s elite at it.”
Reirden’s players credit him for his Xs and Os smarts, communication skills and attention to detail. Letang said he improved a lot under Reirden, Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz called him an “intellect on the power play” and Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik praised him for not dwelling on mistakes because playing the position gave him an understanding of how difficult it is.
“He’s big on habits and really consistent in his approach to how he wants the game played and what he likes to see you do,” Niskanen said. “He’s a constant communicator. He’s really good at that.”
Reirden picked up pieces of his coaching philosophy along the way. He considers McLellan, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, former Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, Bylsma and Richards among his biggest influences.
“For me it will be the importance of the honesty that Joel Quenneville had and the ability of Todd McLellan and Todd Richards to really understand and how to implement a system and how to set players up for success within that system,” said Reirden, who played for Quenneville in St. Louis. “It’s going to be a little bit of a culmination of all different people that I’ve been (around) in this game as a professional now for 20 years.”
Reirden emphasized that he loves working under Trotz in Washington but said he’ll be ready whenever a head-coaching job comes his way.
“It’s ultimately a goal, for certain, just as it was for me as a player to play in the National Hockey League,” Reirden said. “It’s always a goal for me as a coach to get to the pinnacle or the top of your profession.”