When looking for a job, one source that helps you along the way is your connections. Yes “connections” is a phrase that makes you sound like a pompous little so-and-so, but really it’s about the people you have met throughout your lifetime and hoping that through your friendships, they will help you along the way. Those connections helped bring Barry Trotz and Brian MacLellan to Washington as Head Coach and General Manager, respectively. Trotz was the former head coach of the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks in the early 1990s while MacLellan was George McPhee’s sidekick/lackey in the front office and BFF from their days at Bowling Green in the early 1980s. Even with these friendships and experiences, that is not to ignore Trotz’s or MacLellan’s credentials.
Trotz spent the last 15 years coaching the Nashville Predators where he worked under former Caps GM David Poile (it’s those connections again!!!). MacLellan was a former player with 606 career games, a Stanley Cup Ring from the 1989 Calgary Flames and a hockey-reference profile with comparisons to modern day players such as Matt Stajan and Pascal Dupuis. MacLellan would then receive his Master’s in finance from the University of Minnesota and spend the earlier years of his post-playing career trading stocks. Afterwards, McPhee would hire MacLellan on his team as a scout from 2000-2003, director of pro player personnel during the 2003-04 season and then Assistant General Manager.
Obviously, every media member has been going gaga about how MacLellan told Ted Leonsis what he needed to do to be a better owner during his interviews. What stands out the most to me is that since MacLellan came from the land of economics and making money, that lead to one important trait he will bring as general manager: ADVANCED STATS!!! Leonsis came out in the press conference and mentioned how MacLellan referenced JLiken’s piece about scorekeeping biases in NHL arenas (sadly, news came out last weekend that JLikens, the online alias of Tore Martin Purdy, passed away on April 15th at age 28. It is great to see his legacy live on by having current GMs read and appreciate his work). Even Barry Trotz agrees that advanced stats can not be ignored in evaluating the talent of a hockey team as his former team hired Eric Tulsky as a consultant in the final years of his tenure. Yes, both men have stated that the eye test has to be used when evaluating players, but this is the same for every modern day front office in sports, let alone hockey. Remember, this is the same material Mike Rizzo put out during his introductory interviews as the GM for the Washington Nationals. During the press conference, Trotz made it clear that his defensive style isn’t so much about dropping back and shot blocking, but more about having a structure to gain possession of the puck and make good use of it.
One of the things people think is defense is just backing up. That’s not it at all. You can’t play uptempo if you can’t break out of your own zone effectively. You can’t play uptempo if you don’t have the puck. To me uptempo means that you want be able to break out of your own zone effectively, make good decisions through the neutral zone, and get it to the other end you can create some offense.
Yes, it was quite odd that the Capitals went in house for a General Manager, but General Managers Bob Murray, Stan Bowman, Greg Sherman, Bryan Murray, Dave Nonis, Garth Snow and Ron Hextall were hired in the exact same fashion. However, Nonis and Snow were the only ones hired in the same circumstance MacLellan had. That circumstance is when the franchises that hired them were in turmoil and praying that their owner can look for a major upgrade from the previous regime. Clearly, what will be most important about the Brian MacLellan era is how different he is to George McPhee.
It’s been evident multiple times now that McPhee was portrayed as a bully who thought his way was the correct way to operate a team, no matter if others told him otherwise. Especially in the latter stages of his tenure, McPhee’s interviews were censored so much that it seemed like the CIA was less cryptic. It was things like this that produced such blunders like the 2010 trade deadline, the lost assets from poorly evaluating Trevor Linden, Scott Hannan, Martin Erat and Jaroslav Halak and multiple coaching hires that led to plenty of disconnect between head coach and GM. When drafting Tom Wilson in 2012, it led to McPhee putting out this piece so rich, you thought Captain Obvious was a real human being:
In the playoffs, we made a note after one of the games. It was to remember these games when we’re at the draft. Remember how intense they are, how demanding they are, how physical they are, and make sure we get someone who wants to play in that kind of stuff.
The real tragedy of the McPhee era was that it undervalued how special Washington’s amateur scouting staff has been over the last decade. The 2004, 2006 and 2012 draft classes could go down as the best the franchise has ever had and even 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 classes were not that bad either and that is down to the hard work of Amateur Scouting Director Ross Mahoney. If there is a valid reason to hire from within, it is to stop at nothing to make sure Mahoney stays. Now it is down to MacLellan to revamp the pro scouting side of things and for Trotz to find real assistant coaches with real NHL and high level international experience (hello, Phil Housley).
The Trotz and MacLellan partnership is off to a good start because, well, this is an actual partnership. Both men were hired at the same time and one thing the media and fan base are missing is the fact that Trotz would never have come back to DC if he felt unsure of the hiring of MacLellan.
The real concern every Capitals fan and media member has is that the core of this Washington team are hitting the last year’s of their primes. But what makes a general manager successful is knowing how to extend a shelf life of their core group of players. The New York Rangers and Anaheim Ducks are perfect examples of this. Their best players are either about to hit or are well over 30 years old, but through timely drafting, underrated trades and signings, and smart/fortunate cap management, the core of this team practically changes every year. As MacLellan, Leonsis and Trotz stressed at the press conference, it is about the team and not a group of six or so players. That is an attitude Washington hasn’t had since the Ron Wilson days.
With the salary cap going up to about $70 million next season, there are 13 teams with less than $20 million in cap space according to capgeek.com. Of those 13 teams, only Pheonix comes close to having the most free money to spend per roster opening ($4,118,125) as Washington ($4,975,513). That means the Caps only need to worry about bringing back Dustin Penner and Mikhail Grabovski and have enough assets to make a trade if they want to go that route. Will they purge from the New York Rangers and pick up their choice(s) of bottom line superstars in Dominic Moore, Benoit Poulliot, Anton Stralman or Brian Boyle? Will they try to steal any of Pittsburgh’s d-men in Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik (please don’t. Sincerely, John Carlson after playing with him in the Olympics.), or even Paul Martin during the final year of his contract? Or do you try to hit a home run and join the Dan Boyle, Paul Stastny, Ryan Kesler, or even Brayden Schenn sweepstakes?
Like every year, these are questions that have to be answered correctly, and with a brutal and honest understanding of where this hockey team is. Some fans will argue that Washington should be a Stanley Cup contender, but “should” and “is” are two completely different words. That is something that the front office and even the fan base better get a grasp on from here on out.