With the exception of equipment manager Dana Heinze who has had to find room in the team's dressing room while also sewing more and more nameplates, it's possible no one person in the Penguins' organization was impacted more by the Penguins' recent run of injuries and suspensions than assistant coach Todd Reirden.
Responsible for the team's blue line, Reirden had to work without the services of two players with at least 600 games experience in Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Rob Scuderi, a Norris Trophy finalist in Kris Letang and a physical bottom-pairing defenseman in Deryk Engelland.
In their place, Reirden and the Penguins had to rely on a player seemingly bound to be traded for salary cap purposes in Matt Niskanen, a 19-year-old junior-eligble rookie in Olli Maatta, a player with all of 42-games of NHL experience in Robert Bortuzzo and three players who began the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson.
Recently, Reirden talked about the differences in his job with younger players.
What is this like for you to deal with younger players at the position you coach?
"They’re getting a great opportunity right no to showcase themselves and they’re put into a situation to succeed. Whether they’ve played in Wilkes-Barre or they’ve been in development camps, they know how we want to play defense. Our scouts have done a great job of giving us some really strong assets to work with. Going into another heavy stretch of games, I think we’ve got to be happy with where we’re at and I think there’s some room for improvement as well."
Are there significant differences in coaching veteran defensemen versus younger, rookie defensemen?
"Yeah. Certainly. Going though just different teams in the league. … Olli and I have a little bit of a routine we go through every day now for different opponents he hasn’t seen before. That’s just getting him used to players at this level and some of their tendencies. Every gameday, we spend extra time working on preparing him for a new challenge that evening and how his primary matchups will be. I think it’s more individual video with those guys. You don’t have to quite as much with Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi. They still like to do it as well."
How much of your job is offering a scouting report on opposing players versus working on individual aspects of each player's game?
"I think it’s a combination of both. Each one of them has their own strengths and weaknesses as a player. We’re putting them in spots where they can do things that they do well. … They’re still just young players. Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen and Brook Orpik and Paul Martin have all gotten better the past couple of years. It’s picking out different details that we work on and going out to practice with a plan in mind of an area to improve on and get better. These guys aren’t done getting better and that includes a guy like Rob Scuderi who is playing defense a little bit differently than he did in [Los Angeles] the last few years. It’s a fun process and I think they embrace it. … There’s a lot of areas and upward movement for these real young guy."
Is it just a reality of a situation that someone like Olli Maatta or Simon Despres might not make the same play as Rob Scuderi or Paul Martin based on experience?
"Yeah. I think you always go into it with an open mind and you have to give players an opportunity to be in those spots. Do they succeed or do they not? That’s all part of the process. Sometimes you can often even learn more sometimes through failure. This is a good time to be doing it. With all these young guys, if there’s a time in the season that I’d want this to happen to our top-four key [defensemen], this would be the time. Going through this stretch of the season where they get a lot of games to play, you get a lot of video work in because there’s so much information you can work on. There’s only so much you can do in practice. They’ve got to be able to take it to the game. That’s been the enjoyable part working with these young guys. They want to get better and they all want to get that opportunity to differentiate themselves from each other."
Do you do more individual coaching during games between shifts of period with younger players versus the veterans?
"It’s a fine line with overloading players with too much information. If they start to think too much … it’s a reactionary game. Certainly there’s always systematic discussion basically almost every shift. I think individual areas for improvement, unless it’s something, that I feel is going to help them the rest of the game, I try to wait on those. I have a system where I mark all the shifts that I want to show the guys the next guys. I know exactly at the four minute mark of the second period that I can show Kris Letang a [video] clip or Olli Maatta a clip. It’s already ready for me the next day. I try not to do too much restructuring of their own personal game and more teaching after. Systems-wise, they have to be on the same page. If there’s something that’s not right there, then we address that immediately. I try to keep their confidence. They’re young players. They still trying to go through the challenges of playing top, top players in the league every night."
(Photo: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)