With the hiring of Jason Botterill as GM, the Buffalo Sabres have begun their leadership rebuild. Now, the obvious question regards the team’s next coach. I don’t have any inside information here, but from the statements Botterill made at his introductory press conference on Thursday, a strong candidate in my mind would be Washington associate coach Todd Reirden.
Now, I know the Capitals just flamed out in spectacular fashion against Pittsburgh, but hear me out. First off, Reirden has been in charge of Washington’s defense and the Capitals were one of the best playoff teams in terms of shot suppression during the first two rounds – it’s not his fault Ovie didn’t backcheck hard enough on those two Game 7 goals. During the regular season, Washington had the No. 1 defense in the NHL – they were 21st overall when Reirden arrived from Pittsburgh in 2014.
And that’s where our story really begins, because Botterill, as we all know, also comes from the Penguins organization. There is already a relationship to build on there.
Reirden spent six years with the Penguins, starting in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and quickly working his way up to the NHL as an assistant under Dan Bylsma (don’t hold that against him, Sabres fans – he is his own man).
At his Buffalo press conference, Botterill said that he wants his Sabres to play high-tempo, puck possession hockey. Washington was one of the best possession teams in both the regular season and the playoffs. And the new GM wants order.
“Structure will be very important to us,” Botterill said. “I believe success comes from structure.”
On that count, Reirden is solid. Before the playoffs, I interviewed blueliner Karl Alzner about Washington’s ascent on defense and he praised the culture change that Reirden brought to the Capitals’ back end. Work ethic and details were very important to Reirden.
“He’s really one step ahead,” Alzner said. “It’s pretty cool to be a part of.”
Reirden has never been a head coach in the NHL, but based on Botterill’s comments, that doesn't seem to be a pre-requisite. Botterill wants a developer, an educator and a communicator. Reirden did a lot of teaching in Washington, with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen helping as Pittsburgh transplants – and I can’t help but look at Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov and see promise for next season.
There isn’t a tremendous rush for Buffalo to get a new coach, though Botterill did say he’d like to have someone by the time the draft rolls around in late June. But in a bigger sense, there is urgency to get the decision right. The Sabres have agonizingly watched the Toronto Maple Leafs vault them in the rebuild department and even if the Leafs fall back a bit next season, you know Tampa Bay is going to be back in the post-season hunt, too (probably Florida as well). Botterill wants a competitive team and while he didn’t put any expectation on when the Sabres should compete for a Stanley Cup, it’s imperative that they get on the right track.
The franchise is sitting pretty in terms of a foundation up front with Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly down the middle, but the defense corps needs a serious upgrade: Buffalo ranked dead-last in the NHL this season in shots against, surrendering 34.3 per night. Some of that upgrading will come with personnel changes, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a defensive specialist such as Rierden behind the bench to lift up those who remain from this season’s crew. He’s ready for the job; now it’s just a matter of landing the position.
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