After 13 years with the Capitals organization, all under his predecessor George McPhee, Brian MacLellan enters an offseason of regime transition as a first-time general manager.
He had spent time as a pro scout, director of player personnel and ultimately assistant general manager before the promotion was made official Monday night. He attended games, often in his home base of Minnesota, met fellow league officials and collaborated on personnel decisions with Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa.
The résumé shows a climbed ladder, but MacLellan’s hiring still gives the Capitals something they haven’t had since 1997: a rookie general manager, one facing the demands of free agency and the NHL draft within four weeks.
At his introductory news conference on Tuesday at Verizon Center, MacLellan was asked how many general managers he knew around the league. Carolina (Ron Francis), Calgary (Brad Treliving), Philadelphia (Ron Hextall), Vancouver (Jim Benning) and Pittsburgh (unknown) have also changed GMs this offseason, and all those known hires are also first-time general managers. In this regard, MacLellan isn’t alone.
But with trades to explore, free agents to sign and prospects to draft, will that inexperience play a role?
“I think it’s a factor,” MacLellan said. “I know several of them just through relationships. I’m going to a lot of games, I’m interacting with them on a different level, but I think it will be easy to form those relationships. I’m going to explore all opportunities to improve the team during the draft, after the draft.”
So, a reporter followed up, would MacLellan expect other general managers to steal from the new guy, to try to take advantage of him?
“I hope they do,” he said. “I hope they come in with that attitude. No, I think I know the league. I know the players. I think it’s going to be hard to take advantage of me.”
With only two unrestricted free agents coming off the ledger – Mikhail Grabovski and Dustin Penner, with Penner a presumed departure and Grabovski a certain target to re-sign – Washington will have some cap space to burn even if Grabovski returns, and even more if its second and final compliance buyout is exercised. According to CapGeek.com, which projects an upper limit salary cap of $71.1 million, the Capitals will have 20 under-contract players totaling $56.17 million, or $14.9 million under the projected cap. That leaves room to retain Grabovski, something his agent in February said will “most likely” happen, and hunt elsewhere for pieces.
Free agency officially begins July 1, but the newest CBA allows unrestricted free agents to “meet and interview with potential new clubs” but they cannot sign new standard player contracts until the signing period begins at noon EST. (ESPN’s Craig Custance penned a more thorough explanation of the new window, focusing on its implications for actual contract negotiations, if you have an Insider account.)
This interview window, extended from the old 48-hour slot, overlaps with the NHL draft, held on June 27-28 in Philadelphia. The Capitals pick 13th, last in the lottery. So with all this ahead, does MacLellan expect a busy next several weeks?
On Tuesday, he played up the interview process with Coach Barry Trotz as “two hockey guys in a room” talking hockey “all night,” and Trotz echoed his new boss in expecting a collaborative decision-making process, much like he had with David Poile for 15 seasons in Nashville. Especially when juxtaposed against the hesitance of McPhee, swift action would certainly signal, as Katie Carrera wrote, “how different a stance MacLellan will have from his predecessor.”
“I’m kind of in the mood that I’d be open to possibilities for it,” he said, when asked how much change and roster tweaks he anticipates in the coming month. “I think I’m going to talk to people. We’re going to get through the draft and I’ll talk to managers as we get through the draft. There seems to be a lot of activity and names being thrown out. I’ll pursue it if I think it’ll help our team, yes.”