Aside from the occasional handshake at league or team events over the last 14 years, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis hardly knew Brian MacLellan. But when the longtime member of the front office sat down for his first interview as a candidate to be general manager, MacLellan made an impression.
In addition to explaining how he believed the team needed to improve on the ice and off, MacLellan told Leonsis how Leonsis could be a better owner. While Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick didn’t set out to make an internal hire after they fired George McPhee in April, MacLellan’s blunt assessment of the organization from top to bottom resonated with them.
And a month after they said they were in search of a new perspective, the Capitals promoted MacLellan on Monday with the belief that he held a different outlook despite his tenure as McPhee’s assistant.
“I liked that brutal honesty that he brought,” Leonsis said. “‘Here’s what we have to do better as a franchise and here’s what you have to do better as an owner.’ I thought that was a very strong, brave voice. I had never heard that before. So with all that, to me, Brian was a new voice, he was someone I hadn’t heard from and frankly he had the most aggressive viewpoint on what we had to do to move forward.”
While Leonsis declined to divulge many details on the search, Patrick said the team spoke with roughly 15 people in their search for a new general manager. Those who interviewed sat down with Leonsis and Patrick for five- to six-hour sessions that covered their background personally, professionally and how they planned to make the Capitals a playoff team again.
MacLellan, 55, didn’t hold back. He wants the Capitals to recommit to developing young talent with a priority on working with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears, to do so.
He intends to work with agents — McPhee delegated that task — to rebuild what multiple league sources have described as a fractured relationship between representatives and the team. He aims to create a hard-working, disciplined team on the ice, while raising off-ice expectations for conditioning.
But to do all that, MacLellan said it would take a cohesive effort by not only the general manager and coach but ownership as well.
“I didn’t think I had anything to lose,” MacLellan said Tuesday when asked why he approached Leonsis with criticism. “The important point I was trying to make is I think the team feels when there’s a disconnect or there’s not a unified philosophy from ownership to management to coach. I thought we, all three of us, have to have a team approach going forward. Everything that we communicate or live by will come from team and we’ll speak it and act it.”
Leonsis said that MacLellan’s analytical approach to player evaluation blends both hockey and business methodology.
After he retired from playing in 1992, MacLellan pursued an MBA and worked at an investment consulting firm in Minneapolis. That pursuit meant that when he returned to the NHL in 2000 as a scout for the Capitals who assessed and evaluated talent, he viewed players as assets to an organization, with trades and signings drawing parallels to trading groups of stocks to maximize value and return.
“He prides himself on being a scout and being able to be very objective on where our players fit in comparison to other players,” Leonsis said. “It’s not like he’s so close to our players.”
Part of his duties as assistant general manager for seven years were to work closely with Hershey Bears General Manager Doug Yingst, who explained that the two spoke on a daily basis, collaborating on everything from coaching hires and personnel decisions to playing time.
“If you bring up an idea, he wants to delve into it completely. Say someone suggests to look at this player,” Yingst said. “He’s going to check with the scouts, check all the reports, make all the phone calls to the previous coaches he had. So it’s not going to be — it’s not just a gut reaction. He’s patient in making his decisions and he’s detailed and processed.”
But not making hasty moves also was one of McPhee’s trademarks, one that garnered criticism as he hesitated to part with players or make a splashy trade, and Washington failed to find the right mix of players to succeed in the postseason.
At this juncture, it’s all but impossible to know how different a stance MacLellan will have from his predecessor. They’re close friends and former college teammates.
MacLellan said McPhee offered encouragement when he told him he applied for the position and later when he got the job. And when asked Tuesday how his approach to managing the Capitals would differ from McPhee, MacLellan teared up and took a minute to compose himself.
“I think I’m a different person, a different personality, different experiences, different education, different playing experience. I think all of that stuff forms your attitudes and your philosophies,” MacLellan said. “We’ve grown up together and we’ve evolved differently but we’re still good friends. The philosophy will be a little different, the emphasis will be different going forward.”