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Penguins and Capitals have same challenge but taking different paths

Washington fired their head coach, Pittsburgh is sticking with theirs. The rest of the division is catching up to the long time leaders, so which path (if any) will work?

2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game - Metropolitan v Central Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

The below is a recent press release from an NHL team. It is not from the Pittsburgh Penguins. But it’s not very difficult at all to mad lib it and fill in some of the blanks and imagine that is was:

Three days after a disappointing play-in Stanley Cup Playoff exit in ____ games at the hands of the _________ _________, the ________ announced on Sunday morning that they have relieved ____ _______ of his head coaching duties. ____ GM __ _________ made the announcement after a Sunday morning meeting with ______.

“We have higher expectations for our team, and we felt a fresh approach in leadership was necessary,” said ________ in a statement. “We would like to thank ____ for all of his hard work and efforts with our organization. ____ has been a big part of our team for more than half a decade, including our Stanley Cup runs in ____ and ____ , and we wish him and his family all the best moving forward.”

The above actually comes from the Washington Capitals in their recent announcement that former Pittsburgh assistant coach Todd Reirden was fired from his post as Washington head coach. The Caps performed horribly in the bubble this summer, a disappointing follow-up to a shocking first round exit in 2019.

Yeah, that sounds familiar Pens fans, doesn’t it?

There were a lot of similarities between the bitter rival Pens and Caps this playoff, perhaps more than either team would be comfortable acknowledging. Neither team looked like they were particularly invested in playing hard. Both teams bowed out without much of a fight. Their offensive prowess was muted. They had no answers defensively. They just couldn’t get on track in the bubble and quickly got bounced in a bitterly disappointing fashion. Almost all the best players on both teams are 30+ years old, and hockey is a young person’s sport. Neither the Pens nor the Caps looked very youthful.

And yet, the responses of the organization were different. The Caps moved to quickly dismiss Reirden. The Pens elected to not renew the contracts of all their assistant coaches, but will bring Sullivan back.

There certainly is a difference in Sullivan and Reirden. Sullivan is a two-time Stanley Cup winning head coach. Reirden was in his first head coaching job (he was an assistant on Washington’s 2018 team). That difference in accomplishment and experience might well be enough to factor into why one is coming back for another chance and another is out of work right now.

But beyond that success, 2016 and 2017 feels a long way away for Sullivan and the Pens.

Another comment from Washington GM Brian MacLellan pretty much 100% sounds like he could be talking about Pittsburgh just as much as his own club right now.

“One thing that happened to us in the bubble was our structure didn’t seem to be there,” says MacLellan. “I know individuals were working hard individually, but a [lack of] team structure was a big cause of our performance in Toronto. So we’re going to need someone that can come in and establish that as a big part of our identity. I think teams in our division - Philadelphia has made big strides in that department and New York obviously does the same thing - we’re going to have to match that [structure] and the work ethic of those teams, too.”

It will be interesting to see if 2020-21 starts to mark a changing of the guard within the division. The Pens and Caps have by far been the best teams in the Metropolitan Division since it’s founding in 2013-14. One of those teams has won the division each of the seven seasons (save 2014-15 when the New York Rangers did).

Those Rangers will reload with first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and look to fast-track a mini-rebuild that has loaded up on some talent. As MacLellan mentioned, the Flyers and Islanders are the only teams to win a playoff round in the division this season and have young cores that are clicking. The Carolina Hurricanes have youth and potential and could be a goalie away from causing problems.

Pittsburgh and Washington have the same challenge — to reload and retool with older cores that have experience and success on their side, but not the luxury of time. Both rivals are going about it in very different ways and it will be interesting to see if neither, both or one of these teams are able to extend their windows with the decisions that they have made.