Ted Leonsis flips Capitals script, goes with experience behind bench, and rookie GM

Mike Wise
Columnist May 27

In announcing the first general manager he has hired (rather than inherited) in 15 years of owning sports teams, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said Brian MacLellan’s voice was the most “authentic” and “brave” he had heard among the 15 candidates interviewing for George McPhee’s old job.

“He led off with some of the things that I have to do to be a better owner,” Leonsis said of MacLellan, explaining why he chose McPhee’s understudy over candidates with experience as NHL GMs. “I thought that was very brave and very astute because you don’t want to hear things like that.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

You want the brutal truth, Ted? Mike Green should be traded for two East Coast Hockey League grinders; Mikhail Grabovski should be re-signed for depth at the center position; Braden Holtby needs to be assured he is the goalie of the future instead of being toyed with weekly; and, finally, Alex Ovechkin has a year left to learn to consistently back-check and defend or else his $9-million-a-year-rear should be put on the trading block.

There, that’s authentic and brave. Now can I be the assistant GM?

In trying to Google “brian maclellan,” I came up with “epic writer of American fantasy” and a vegan, raw-food business owner in Vancouver. Fair question: What NHL general manager doesn’t have a Wikipedia page? Heck, Steve Oleksy has a Wikipedia page.

The Washington Capitals named Barry Trotz as their new coach after the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Here's what you need to know about the veteran coach. (The Washington Post)

“I really hadn’t heard his voice before,” Leonsis admitted.

The big news Tuesday at Verizon Center — that a coach with oodles of NHL experience finally was brought in to take over a team of goal-scorers and even bigger goal-giver-uppers — was almost obscured by the promotion of someone inside the organization surprisingly plucked to be the new architect.

Barry Trotz, the only coach the Nashville Predators have had for 15 years, waited a good 15-20 minutes on the dais before he was asked a question. You would think Caps fans would want to know, for instance, how a guy who has coached just four 30-goal scorers in his career and has won with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and a lot of pluggers, is going to adapt to being in charge of several offensive thoroughbreds who need to grind and plug a little more.

Eventually, Trotz had his say, and he was thoughtful and humorous and very certain of his plan for more structure, discipline and “more team.”

And for the record, I’m not going to eviscerate the hiring of MacLellan, even though it does feel a little like giving Mike Shanahan’s job to Bruce Allen after Allen had worked under Shanny more than with him for five years.

Bottom line: Too many capable in-house candidates are leap-frogged in every facet of the American workplace just because someone else had the courage to take a chance on a relative front-office nobody and make them a somebody years ago.

And MacLellan did win a Cup with the Flames in 1989 during his 10-year career before McPhee rescued his old Bowling Green buddy from stockbroker purgatory and brought him into the NHL fold as a scout.

Besides, who doesn’t root for a guy who, when asked why he was so critical of Leonsis and the way the Caps have been doing business in what he thought would be a courtesy interview, replied, “What did I have to lose?”

Still, it was odd seeing such a 180-degree shift in Caps’ power dynamics at the top, from the entrenched GM always hiring a coach with no NHL head-coaching experience to the respected, veteran coach now in place with a rookie GM.

“We’re getting a guy who’s been through 15 years of [being a head coach], whereas some of the other guys sometimes learned as we went,” said Brooks Laich, the veteran forward who attended the news conference with John Carlson, Holtby and Jason Chimera on Tuesday afternoon. “He’s been doing his thing in coaching longer than any of us have been playing. When my dad and I would talk about what coaches had the structure and discipline to win the Cup, his name would come up a lot. To be honest, we’re really excited to have him. I can’t wait to play for him.”

Worst-case scenario: If Trotz fails like Adam Oates, Bruce Boudreau and Glen Hanlon before him or quits like Dale Hunter, it won’t be chiefly viewed as his fault. From now until he either raises the grail or retires, the common denominator and highest-paid player is in the crosshairs. Ovi is going to be everyone’s human shield from now on.

Could this be seen as Leonsis saving bucks on a GM after spending big on a coach? Sure. But it’s also true that McPhee and Oates disagreed on many players, and the danger of having another oil-water situation could have been exacerbated by bringing in a front-office lifer who had two ways to do things: his way and the wrong way.

You could tell immediately, by the way Trotz called MacLellan “Mac” and by the way two Canadian-born hockey guys said “Org-uh-NIGH-zation,” that they got on well.

“I don’t see why you can’t be in that mix right away,” Trotz said when asked if he saw this as a Stanley Cup-contending team. “There’s enough ability here. We just have to forge a little bit of an identity going forward . . . You have to get in. But once you get in, you’re competing for it.”

Some of the frustrated legions with the red jerseys they haven’t rocked in May are surely thinking, “Great, new names at the top, same ol’ players. How are we really going to go deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs with another defensive genius force-feeding speed demons on why they need to play both ends of the ice?”

I can’t answer that. All I know is two more decent hockey nicknames were added to the mix, including one you don’t even have to alter: “Mac” and “Trotz.”

And while Georgie, Gabby, Hunts and Oatsie failed to deliver, for better or worse you still got Ovi, Backie, Brooksie, Chimmer, Holtsie, Alzie and Greenie. The harsh truth: If at least half of those holdovers can’t win a Cup, it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge off the ice anymore unless they are prepared to back up the truck and start over.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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