The decision to move on from both George McPhee and Adam Oates as general manager and coach was the simple half of the equation Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick must solve this offseason.
Now that they have their “clean slate,” as Leonsis called it, they must fill the two key vacancies. Whomever they choose will set the tone for the franchise on and off the ice, dictating its trajectory for years to come and determining whether the Capitals’ absence from the postseason this spring was a one-year blip or indicative of symptoms that take longer to shake.
“This is a great situation for an executive coming into,” Leonsis said. “It’s a great, great city. Great, great fan base. We have an incredible amount of talent, we have a lot of young talent in the pipeline and I’m sure we’re going to be able to find an individual who has a plan and can work with the organization to get us to where we want to be.”
While Patrick said they’ve already compiled an initial list of general manager candidates, this isn’t going to be a quick search.
Even though the Capitals would like to have someone in place by the 2014 NHL draft on June 27 in Philadelphia, Patrick said he doesn’t view that as a strict deadline. By keeping the scouting and hockey operations staff intact for the time being, Washington is equipped to proceed through the draft without a general manager if necessary, though that path would limit the team’s options during one of the busiest times for trades on the NHL calendar.
But there are reasons not to dawdle, because if the Capitals want to take advantage of their fresh start they should give whomever they hire time to take charge of the organization.
Former Capitals forward and CSN Washington analyst Alan May drew parallels to the Dallas Stars’ moves last season, when they quickly reworked the team after missing the playoffs for a fifth straight year. First they hired Jim Nill, a longtime assistant general manager from Detroit, as general manager in late April and then brought in Lindy Ruff as coach by late June. The Stars qualified for the playoffs this year.
“When you look at Washington, what they need is to have that leadership in place and total communication of their vision for the franchise, and it’s got to go upwards, not just downwards,” May said. “This person has to communicate everything to the ownership and all these other people that there’s a way we’ve got to do things and we’ve got to stay on that path. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing right by the players, right by the organization, and the obsession has to be getting Stanley Cup rings. You can’t just say it like a 5-year-old says it to his parents. Everything you do has to be with that vision.”
There are numerous candidates, but the majority are assistant general managers with a successful track record in a secondary role rather than those who have run a team of their own.
Jim Benning, who has spent eight years with the Boston Bruins, may be the prize of the group. A respected talent evaluator, he was a finalist for the job in Buffalo this season and is rumored to be a candidate in Vancouver. Former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Ron Hextall was the top lieutenant in Philadelphia this season after a seven-year run with Los Angeles during which he helped build the Kings into a Stanley Cup winner in 2012.
Laurence Gilman has 18 years of front office experience between time with Vancouver and Phoenix. Other assistant general managers, such as Brad Treliving in Phoenix, Jason Botterill in Pittsburgh, Paul Fenton in Nashville and Julien BriseBois in Tampa Bay, also could be in the mix. So could Mike Gillis, who was fired as general manager of the Canucks on April 4.
To meet with any candidate under contract with another team in any capacity requires the Capitals to obtain permission from that club first, adding another wrinkle to the process.
Perhaps more important than the timing, however, will be whether the Capitals allow the new general manager to select a coach. Ron Wilson was hired as coach in 1997 before McPhee was dubbed general manager.
Wilson “was available, and he was a hot commodity,” Patrick said. “We’d identified him as a coach we wanted and didn’t want to lose him because we weren’t ready at that point to make the decision on a general manager. Typically or generally speaking, we prefer to have the general manager in place and his involvement with selecting the coach, but it could happen otherwise.”
There are a few established coaches already on the market this time around. Peter Laviolette, who has 12 years of NHL head coaching experience and won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina, demands intensity from his teams. Barry Trotz, let go by Nashville after 15 years behind the bench, is a widely respected, no-nonsense coach who isn’t expected to be out of work long.
But it’s probably a safe assumption the top general manager candidates would want their say in selecting a bench boss. So the Capitals may be better served by filling the front-office spot first.
No matter how they play out, though, the next few weeks will be critical for the Capitals.
“We have to get a sense both of what we know about the candidates and what we learn in the interview process,” Patrick said. “That will be a lengthy process about whether they’re best suited for the other personnel that we have in the organization and on the team.”