Penguins part ways with longtime associate coach Todd Reirden

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The Pittsburgh Penguins made a fairly large splash Friday afternoon, parting ways with longtime associate coach Todd Reirden.

Twice an assistant coach with the Penguins —  once under Dan Bylsma, and under Mike Sullivan for the past four years — Reirden came under fire from the fan base this season because of the power play’s staggering struggles. Despite coaching a unit that possesses a number of future Hall of Famers, Pittsburgh finished 31st in the NHL on the power play and led the league in shorthanded goals allowed.

Reirden, whose contract expired once the Penguins’ season ended, was also responsible for coaching the Penguins’ defensemen, many of whom struggled during the 2023-24 season.

In particular, Ryan Graves, who received a six-year contract from general manager and president of hockey operations Kyle Dubas in July, endured a season that was so horrendous even Dubas, in his postseason meeting with the media, offered criticism of the defenseman.

Another major offseason addition last season, Erik Karlsson, did not operate at the level many anticipated. Kris Letang, after a strong first half of the season, was a profound disappointment in the second half.

Dubas said that while the decision to move from Reirden was difficult, both he and Sullivan agreed that the move was “in the best interest of the team moving forward.”

This isn’t the first time Sullivan has endured having assistants get fired.

In August 2020, Jim Rutherford fired assistant coaches Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin in a decision that didn’t sit particularly well with the head coach.

“This is much more difficult than you can imagine,” Sullivan said on the day of those dismissals. “These are my friends. We’ve been through a lot together as a group.”

Sullivan and Reirden have developed a very strong relationship over the years and despite what Dubas said in his statement, it is not believed Sullivan was in favor of Reirden’s dismissal. Reirden, the former head coach of the Washington Capitals, has long been regarded as one of hockey’s best assistant coaches with his specialty lying in his work with defensemen.

Letang loves working with Reirden and has credited him with reviving his career on more than one occasion.

Reirden’s units have almost exclusively sat in the top 10 in the NHL during his stints as a power play coach. However, the power play looked sluggish at times during the 2022-23 season, finishing 14th in the NHL. It then plummeted this past season.

Dubas was asked following the season if the coaching staff would be returning intact but did not directly answer the question. Sullivan, whose three-year contract extension kicks in next season, is believed to be safe.

Perhaps Dubas simply believed Reirden wasn’t functioning as the associate coach Pittsburgh needed. Reirden wasn’t a Dubas hire, after all.

It’s difficult to determine if the Penguins, and Dubas specifically, are sensitive to public criticism from the fan base. If so, then dismissing Reirden will only enhance Dubas’ approval rating, as the fan base has long blamed coaching in general, and Reirden specifically, for the power play’s woes.

If Pittsburgh knew Reirden wasn’t returning, then letting him go now was the appropriate move, as it allows Reirden to find employment elsewhere while also giving the Penguins ample time to find another assistant.

It’s early to say, though it should be expected Pittsburgh will take its time rounding out Sullivan’s staff. One name to keep in mind is David Quinn. The recently fired San Jose Sharks coach has spent a couple of stints around the league as a head coach and is one of Sullivan’s best friends.

There will be no shortage of qualified candidates as the Penguins remain a very high profile, respected organization.

Someone who specializes in working on the power play would seem utterly mandatory. Sullivan has his hands on the special teams as well, but he prefers to have an assistant run the power play. Before Reirden, the job belonged to Mark Recchi. Before him, it was Rick Tocchet.

Reirden’s situation was interesting in that he worked with the defensemen and with the power play. It’s somewhat unusual for a coach to oversee those two units. It could be that Pittsburgh will bring more than one coach in to handle those duties.

Was it really Reirden’s fault? In my opinion? No.

The decision to move on from Reirden, on some level, is certainly understandable. The power play was horrific last season. So was Graves.

And let’s be honest here … the Penguins haven’t reached the playoffs in two straight seasons. Because of their salary cap situation — and because of the remarkable amount of no-movement clauses that Ron Hextall dished out — Dubas isn’t in a position to give this roster a complete makeover this summer.

Oh, there will be changes. Dubas has around $12 million to spend in free agency. He almost assuredly will try to unload some salaries. But for this team to have some kind of a reasonable shakeup, it makes sense that a change in coaching of some kind would be made.

I will say this, however. Both publicly and privately, I’ve not been told by one player that Reirden was ever a problem. In fact, he’s very much respected in the Pittsburgh locker room and around the league, largely considered one of hockey’s best assistant coaches.

The problem with the Penguins very much lies in roster construction. As for the power play, did we ever really credit Tocchet or Recchi will all of that unit’s success? Or did we simply believe that a unit with a handful of Hall of Famers should indeed be good on the power play?

The truth is probably in the middle here. Part of the coaching staff’s job is to get through to players, and this staff very clearly failed in that regard this season. Thus, a big change has been made.

But it’s fair to blame players, too. The blood is on their hands as much as it is Reirden’s, but coaches in the NHL are always easier to dismiss.

There’s no rift between Sullivan and Dubas. It’s been reported elsewhere that there is. Those reports are laughably false.

Perhaps they didn’t agree on the Reirden decision. That’s quite possible. But I assure you they have a very good working relationship and are very much on the same page. Anything else that you read is utterly untrue.

Required reading

(Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

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