For 35 minutes last week, Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan performed an act of lunacy: He listened to questions from a handful of local reporters, and then he bluntly answered them.
Is his first-place team looking to acquire a third goalie? “Yes, for a while we have been,” he said. Do the Caps need to find a depth forward before this week’s trade deadline? “I don’t think so,” he said. Could the team re-up with T.J. Oshie before the end of the season? “It’s probably unlikely,” he said. Does he need to make a big move at the deadline for symbolic reasons? “My first year … I felt a pressure to add just to send the right message to the team,” he said. “This year I don’t feel that pressure.”
And has he backed off his belief that this is a crucial moment in franchise history, with an opportunity that might not be repeated next year? Nah.
“We’ve tried to create a sense of urgency here, even starting last year, that this is it,” the general manager said. “You have two years to figure it out [with] this group. That doesn’t mean that going forward we’re not going to be good, but … something’s got to give because of the roster we have. Something’s got to fall out, and I’m not sure what it’s going to be. But it’s not going to be the same.”
You probably knew all this already. It makes sense not to re-sign Oshie until after the expansion draft. The need for a third goalie is obvious. MacLellan’s league-leading team is in a much better situation than were the Caps of 2015, so they aren’t desperate for a February boost. And you don’t need any algorithms to figure out this two-year window stuff: Alex Ovechkin keeps getting grayer, there isn’t enough money to keep all the pending free agents, and the core has one last chance together.
So why should anyone care if the GM spends 35 minutes answering these questions? Wouldn’t it be as sound a strategy to hide a Washington GM away and not allow him to answer questions in a group setting for, let’s say, nine months? If you were just making up a possible scenario involving a theoretical Washington GM? Without actually referring to a real team or person in any way?
Look, I know you don’t care. Fans constantly tell me they don’t care who speaks to members of the media, or when. They don’t care whether front-office executives are forthcoming, or inscrutable, or silent, or consumed with eating cheese in a storage closet. That wins and losses matter a lot, and news conferences and honest answers don’t matter, at all. Plus, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 2017, it’s that media members turning news stories into reflections on media access will probably not lead to a flood of sympathy hugs, back rubs or gifts of Gruyere.
Still, it’s kind of curious. MacLellan has built the best team in the NHL. His Caps are among the favorites to win the horribly random and intestine-destroying crapshoot known as the Stanley Cup playoffs. He inherited a wobbly franchise and helped wrestle it back into a pleasant, stable and happy place.
So why bother answering questions about whether he needs a third goalie or a depth forward or a top-four defenseman? Why bother opening up about why one of his past additions, forward Curtis Glencross, didn’t work out? (“He came in and he liked being second-line left wing, and when you put him down to fourth-line wing he was uncomfortable,” the GM said. “He couldn’t handle it mentally.”) What does he gain by acknowledging the difficulty of retaining both Oshie and Karl Alzner, or that this two-year window is almost over, or that even team execs are struggling with whether a depth move is worth the potential cost in the dressing room? (“How far do you go to tinker with that [chemistry], to upset the chemistry to cover yourself insurance-wise in case of an injury?” he asked. “We’re wrestling with it.”)
Why not just choose silence?
“I mean, you’re evaluating me, too, I think,” MacLellan told those of us around that conference table last week. “I want you to know what I’m trying to do. If I do it, I do it, and, hopefully, you say ‘Well he did say that, good job.’ And if I don’t do it, I mean, hopefully, I have an answer for you: ‘It didn’t work out, because of this, this and this.’ I mean, I think that’s what we’re here for. If I’m secretive … what am I being secretive about? Because there’s nothing to keep secret, is there?”
I guess that’s the question. Some sports teams seem to operate like intelligence agencies, where nothing is on the record and everything leaks like a poorly applied diaper, with similarly scented results. (Not that I speak from recent personal experience.) Why talk if it could hurt your leverage, or tip off a rival, or make you look bad in the future?
There’s another team in town that has major decisions pending, and its general manager is on, shall we say, a less-forthcoming path. “We’re focusing on the combine,” a Redskins spokesman said, when asked why Scot McCloughan remains out of sight. At that combine, 29 teams are scheduled to put an executive in front of a microphone. The Redskins aren’t one of them.
I’m not trying to convince you to care about this. You don’t care, and that’s fine. If the Redskins duct-taped McCloughan’s lips shut and then won a Super Bowl, no one would lament those missing quotes about football players playing football.
It’s just nice to sometimes remember that you don’t have to be secretive to win, that you don’t have to treat a free agency strategy like an intelligence dossier, and that opening up the process a tiny bit can actually add to the experience of following a team. MacLellan said his first offseason would be about his defense and then he signed Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. He said his second would be about secondary scoring and he acquired Oshie and Justin Williams. He said the last offseason would be about the third line, and he landed Lars Eller and Brett Connolly. He regularly chats with media members, attempts to provide reasonable answers to reasonable questions, and still managed to assemble the best team in hockey.
“I tell the people: ‘This is what we’re trying to do,’ you know?,” MacLellan said, “the people” referring to fans and media members and the rest of the hockey world. “I think you have to be honest. You have to be straightforward, you have to be honest. Part of is, you’re creating something. So you’ve got to put it out there: This is what we want to do.”
You don’t have to do it. Others have chosen alternate strategies. And maybe the Caps will shock us all with a blockbuster move this week. If they do, I’d love to hear an honest explanation for it. And I’m pretty confident I would get one.