September 22, 2014

Capitals looking to refresh, not rebuild, with MacLellan & Trotz hires

“I didn’t think I had anything to lose,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan,
on his interviews with Caps braintrust.

“Refresh.”

That’s how Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis referred to the current reorganization of his franchise. During his almost 20 minutes of opening remarks at the introductory press conference for new general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz, Mr. Leonsis did everything he could to convey to the fans of the Caps that this wasn’t going to be a dismantling; the team is closer to contending than they appeared last season.

Now, we can debate that all we like. Astute hockey fans know that the Capitals had a lot of problems last season, including — first and foremost — the proclivity to give up many more shots than they took.

Trotz’ coaching style and systems should help in that regard. But the bottom line is that he needs the players to make those systems work.

MacLellan’s laundry list is long. This team needs at least two dependable, veteran defensive-minded defensemen to pair with their credible puck-moving defensemen. They need a talented scorer, one preferably that does his work in the goal crease, to put on the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. They need to re-sign Mikhail Grabovski and let him center the second line, like what should have been the plan all along last season. They need to sign a veteran goalie to backup, not challenge, Braden Holtby.

And there’s more. But that’s fodder for another post.

Seriously though, the primary directive should be getting the entire organization on the same page.

We heard all four men that spoke Tuesday (Leonsis, MacLellan, Trotz and team president Dick Patrick) allude to the fact that communications in the organization had become fractured. There was no clear message from top to bottom. Hell, Leonsis admitted to the fact that he’d never spoken with MacLellan, his employee of over 13 years, for more than a handshake at a draft or two.

But Leonsis liked what he heard during MacLellan’s two interview sessions.

“I’ll tell you, his was the most negative of the interviews,” Leonsis said. “There’s a great quote, ‘With familiarity comes contempt.’ I liked that brutal honesty that he brought.

“When you have confidence in yourself to tell people what they don’t want to hear. … I thought that was a very strong, brave voice. I had never heard that before.

“To me, Brian was a new voice and frankly, he had the most aggressive viewpoint on what we had to do to move forward.”

MacLellan, for his part, responded to those comments with self-deprecation.

“I didn’t think I had anything to lose,” he said. “The important point I was trying to make is that the team feels it when there’s a disconnect and not a unified philosophy from ownership to manager to coach. I thought all three of us have to have a team approach moving forward.”

And what about that unified philosophy? Again, the four men on the dais agreed there were certain tenets they wanted the Capitals going forward to be about.

Consistency. Responsibility. Accountability.

All three are great hockey buzzwords. But you didn’t have to spend 82 games watching the Caps last season to know that they were missing at various times during the year. Long-time Caps scholars will note that the team hasn’t had a singular philosophy since the President’s Trophy Caps of 2010 were dumped by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of that season’s playoffs.

Since then, we’ve seen this organization and team all over the map. Then-coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee abandoned Boudreau’s balls-to-the-wall outlook for some sort of hybrid system. They essentially allowed the Canadian media to dictate how this team was to be run, because there’s no way Boudreau’s offense-all-the-time system would ever win in the playoffs, despite its obvious success in the regular season.

Anyway, since then we’ve seen coaches and players come and go, searching on the fly for a combination that would unlock the talent that the players on the team are seemingly in possession of. Meanwhile, things on the ice just kept getting worse.

Dale Hunter’s coin-flip hockey got them one game away from the Eastern Conference finals, but his “plows-on-thoroughbreds” system didn’t make the best use of the assembled talent, and he wanted to get back to the family farm anyway. Adam Oates’ success on the power play masked deficiencies in almost every single other phase of the game. And meanwhile, McPhee kept trading assets for spare parts, akin to putting bubble gum on leaks in the dike.

Now, according to all involved, those types of communications blunders aren’t going to happen.

“It has to be a relationship that works,” MacLellan said. “Any move we make, Barry has to be in line with it or we don’t make the call. If I want to see a guy come up [from the minors] and evaluate him, Barry has to be in line with that.

“He can’t say, ‘No, I’m not going to play him.’ And I need to know what Barry wants, too.”

For Trotz, the emphasis is going to be getting the players on the ice to buy into the team’s philosophies, as much as it is the X’s and O’s.

“Every good team, players, they’ll tell you they want accountability,” Trotz said. “Any foundation, you look at the four teams who are playing in the [Stanley Cup] final, they’re hard-working, hard-to-play-against teams. We want to get to that level.

“And the foundation is going to be hard work. There’s enough skill here. The accountability, not only to the coach but to each other. I think that’s more important. The core, the answer to us going really far is in the group. If you want to go fast, you go by yourself. If you want to go far, you go with the group. And this group has a lot of capabilities to go forward.”

Some form of these words have been said over and over as long as NHL franchises have been hiring coaches and executives. Will this combination — MacLellan and Trotz — be the group that gets this collection of talented but erratic players to believe in the mantra of hard work and team? And will MacLellan be able to supply Trotz with the correct pieces to fill out that talented but erratic roster?

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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