July 24, 2014

MacLellan distances himself from McPhee with free agent signings

Anybody miss George McPhee yet?

No one really knew what to expect from Brian MacLellan when he was promoted to general manager; with no track record, he was an unknown commodity. The amnesty buyout period came and went with no movement and fans began to fear the had traded one complacent general manager for another. [Read more...]

Alex Ovechkin is a lot of things, but is he a coach killer?

There is perhaps no more polarizing player in the NHL than Alex Ovechkin.

To some, he is the best scorer in the world, a dynamic playmaker not afraid to throw his body around and carry the team on his back offensively when they need it the most. To others, he is a lazy, selfish player whose style of play and large contract are more of a detriment to the Washington Capitals than anything else.

Barry Trotz is now set to be the fifth head coach of the Caps in the past seven years and fifth of Ovechkin’s career causing some to declare Ovechkin a coach killer.

When a team’s star player and the coach don’t see eye to eye, it can cause problems within a locker room. When the team starts to struggle, owners will frequently can the coach rather than ship off the superstar. These players are thus labeled “coach killers.”

If a new coach comes in and proves to be more successful than the last, everyone forgets about it. If the problems persist, however, then people start to wonder if a player is “coachable.” In terms of Ovechkin, since he has such a large contract and is the face of the franchise, if he cannot be coached then the team essentially cannot win with him.

Determining if Ovechkin is a coach killer therefore is not just a shameless attempt to pull in web traffic, but is actually important for the future of the Caps. If he can’t be coached, then at some point, the team will have to move on from him.

So let’s look at which coach firings you can lay at the feet of Ovechkin.

First, you can throw Glen Hanlon out of this discussion. He was Ovechkin’s first coach, but was fired November 22, 2007 in Ovechkin’s third season. When the fans are chanting for the head coach to be fired, that’s usually a bad sign.

Hanlon was in over his head and everyone knew it.

Bruce Boudreau took over in 2007, but was fired 22 games into the 2011-12 season. After a strong 7-0 start, things went downhill as the Caps limped to a 5-9-1 record in their next 14 games. A 5-1 loss to a struggling Buffalo team was the final straw.

“This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce,” said George McPhee. “When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change.”

Would Boudreau have been fired if John Erskine was tuning him out? Probably not. It would be fair to assume then that McPhee was concerned that Ovechkin and Boudreau were no longer on the same page and the numbers bear that out.

Ovechkin had only one goal in the eight games leading up to Boudreau’s dismissal and only 17 points in the season’s first 22 games. The tension between him and the coach was clearly growing as Ovechkin showed in the team’s November 1 matchup against Anaheim. After learning he was benched for the end of the game, Ovechkin appeared to voice his displeasure. 

To say Ovechkin quit on Boudreau is an easy narrative, but in many ways it does not make sense. Dale Hunter, a defense-first, no-nonsense coach was selected to replace Boudreau; not at all the sort of coach you would expect from a team trying to appease their offensive star.

Let’s not forget Boudreau’s history prior to the firing. The Caps were only one offseason removed from being swept in the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning and two seasons from a stunning upset at the hands of Montreal in the first round.

Boudreau also dismissed the rumor that there was any rift between him and Ovechkin after being fired.

Let me give you two hypotheticals and you can decide for yourself which is more plausible: a player swore in frustration in the heat of the moment in a single game and a general manager saw his team struggling and decided to make a coaching change after two years of disappointing playoff performances OR McPhee fired Boudreau and replaced him with a defensive coach all in an effort to placate his dynamic offensive playmaker.

While many people seem to be running with the latter narrative, it doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

Professional athletes are the most competitive people on the planet. When the team needs a goal, every player wants to be on the ice, especially someone as good as Ovechkin. His outburst may be regrettable, but his frustration is understandable. People are reading far too much into one specific incident.

Boudreau still has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs even with two chances in Anaheim. That has more to do with why he was fired than a single outburst from Ovechkin.

Under Hunter, the Caps were a very different team as he stressed defense. As you would imagine, Ovechkin clashed more with Hunter than he did with any of his coaches. Hunter was not afraid to bench Ovechkin and he did, frequently.

“Sometimes I felt trapped,” said Ovechkin.

But, regardless of how much Hunter and Ovechkin struggled to coexist, you can’t blame Ovechkin for getting Hunter fired because Hunter was never fired.

After the end of the season, Hunter informed the team he was stepping down as head coach to return to the London Knights in Ontario, an OHL team he owns and coaches.

The conspiracy theorists out there will say that Hunter was forced out or that his relationship with Ovechkin made him want to leave, but Hunter did not leave for another NHL team, he’s not an assistant somewhere or the head coach of an AHL team; he’s still in Ontario coaching the London Knights.

Cleary, that is where he is the most comfortable. You can’t blame Ovechkin for that.

Hunter was followed by Adam Oates. Despite some early success in the lockout shortened season in which the Caps reached the playoffs, Oates was a complete disaster in his first full season as a head coach. His faults have been well documented by this point and frankly if you blame Ovechkin for Oates getting fired, then you just weren’t paying attention.

So let’s recap. Of Ovechkin’s four previous coaches, the first was let go because the team was awful under his tutelage, the second underachieved in the playoffs, the third left voluntarily and the fourth was a terrible coach.

Ovechkin meanwhile has won multiple MVPs, been benched, switched positions at a coach’s behest and went so far as to say he wanted Oates to return as coach even after Oates publicly called him out for his defense in the now infamous Dallas game.

That doesn’t sound like a coach killer.

Ovechkin absolutely has his faults as a player. His defense is atrocious and as the captain of the team, giving less than 100% effort in the defensive zone is inexcusable. His lack of playoff success is also something he will have to live with until he can get over the hump and make a deep run. It is absolutely fair to criticize him for that.

But if we’re being fair, it also should be pointed out that Ovechkin has never had a coach with prior NHL experience or a championship caliber defense to work with. There are several reasons why the Caps have failed to win a Stanley Cup in the past few years, Ovechkin is only a piece of the puzzle.

Giving him the label of “coach killer” is easy to do, but it ignores a lot of the facts that suggest otherwise.
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JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Caps Promote MacLellan: Inspired or status quo?

[ed. The original version of the post misspelled Brian MacLellan's name in several places (including the headline!). We apologize for the poor copy editing.]

During the press conference announcing that George McPhee would not be retained as general manager of the Washington Capitals, owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick both spoke of the organization needing a “new direction” with the general manager position.

From the press release, attributed to Mr. Leonsis: “This is an important time for our organization, and I feel a change is needed in order to get us back to being a top echelon team that competes for the Stanley Cup.”

Mr. Leonsis then went on the radio and told 106.7 The Fan the following:

“And so you come to that realization that our upside is being capped now, and we’re probably better served at bringing in a fresh set of eyes and a fresh set of voices, and empowering a new team, a new group of executives, and listening to them, and listening to what they would do, because all we want to do is win a Stanley Cup.”

Monday, we found out who will be that “fresh set of eyes.” We got a name for the “new group of executives.” It’s someone who isn’t fresh or new at all.

The Capitals promoted assistant general manager Brian MacLellan — a college teammate of George McPhee’s and a Caps’ employee for 13 years — to senior vice-president and general manager. They also hired Barry Trotz, a long-time coach in the Caps’ system, as the new head coach.

Trotz has 15 years of experience as a head coach in the NHL and has a reputation that says he will bring intensity, structure and discipline to the ice. All of those things are good. Trotz will demand a commitment to a two-way system, stressing responsibility to team – and teammates.

MacLellan has no history other than first filling multiple roles in the Caps developmental system, then as George McPhee’s protégé.

I don’t want to be critical without acknowledging that the hiring of MacLellan might be an inspired choice. He is said to be well-versed in analytics and “fancy stats” and he owns an MBA and worked at an investment consulting firm before beginning his career as an executive in the NHL. Those things are good.

But we don’t have any idea because he’s never had that opportunity to be the decision-maker. He has no track record.

What we do know is that when given the opportunity to make the most important hire in the history of his franchise, Mr. Leonsis played it safe, hiring the in-house candidate.

There are several GM jobs available around the NHL. Did anyone see MacLellan’s name on the list of interviewees? Was he considered a “hot commodity” assistant, like Brad Treliving (now GM in Calgary), Jim Benning in Boston, Jason Botterill in Pittsburgh, among others?

Much less, did anyone see MacLellan’s name among veteran GMs looking for work, like Ray Shero and Craig Button.

“After conducting an extensive search for a general manager, we determined that Brian was the best candidate to help us reach our ultimate goal, winning the Stanley Cup,” Leonsis said via press release Monday. “

“We have witnessed his abilities firsthand, and we have tremendous respect for how he manages people and situations. We feel he has relevant, in-depth knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of our franchise and will be forceful in addressing them. Brian always has displayed tremendous professionalism, passion and commitment to the Capitals. He has his own unique approach, and we are confident in his abilities to lead this organization to new heights.”

MacLellan, as assistant GM, was in charge of pro scouting. Isn’t that one of the places most folks would look on this team as say, ‘Aren’t they overestimating their own guys?’ One would have to assume MacLellan played an instrumental part in evaluating players for returns on trades. Isn’t that another area where the Caps have had a red flag during the McPhee administration?

I get that we don’t have the best idea of what MacLellan brings to the table. He might have had his ideas shot down by McPhee… or Leonsis. But that’s sort of the point.

The Capitals organization had the opportunity to show all of hockey, and the fans in this market, just how serious it was to compete for a Stanley Cup. By staying in-house and hiring an assistant GM that wasn’t on anyone else’s radar, they certainly made a statement.

Mr. Leonsis and Mr. Patrick made the safe, comfortable decision. They chose to promote from within rather than bring in a truly outside voice, one that might question decisions and offer counter opinions to the group-think at Kettler.

For those that wanted true change, they will be sorely disappointed with this hire. Only time will tell if it was the right decision.

D.C has only been waiting for 40 years.

District Sports Page presents Caps Weekly: McPhee, Oates out; where do they go from here?

Dave Nichols, Katie Brown and J.J. Regan of District Sports Page discuss the Washington Capitals dismissal of George McPhee and Adam Oates.

Check Out Hockey Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with DistrictSportsPage Caps Weekly on BlogTalkRadio

McPhee meets with media for final time

“What sells tickets is entertaining hockey and we’ve always tried to play that way.” George McPhee

George McPhee, up until two days ago the man responsible for the direction and construction of the Washington Capitals, met with the media on Monday for the first time since the Caps announced they would not renew his contract, which expires June 1. He’ll remain on the payroll until then, and any team wishing to speak with him about a position will have to first obtain permission from the Caps’ organization. Rather than parse his statements, below is a transcript of the entire press conference. It’s long (about 35 minutes worth), but long-time Caps fans will find his comments interesting with regard to the history of the franchise and his place in it. It also will provide the full context of his answers to the specific questions.

McPhee went out of his way to let everyone know he would not speak ill of anyone in the organization during his final press conference, and he was true to his word. McPhee took the organization’s failures upon himself, and heaped praise on the colleagues he leaves behind. He hopes to continue his career as a manager in the National Hockey League, and he shouldn’t find himself out of work for very long.

McPhee will ultimately be remembered in D.C. as the architect of some very good hockey teams, but teams that were just not able to get over the hump. He said several times during his final press conference he was proud of what he built in Washington, both on the ice and in the stands. A comment he made in his opening statements stands out. When he was first hired, he walked out to what would be center ice at the under-construction Verizon Center and he realized he’d have “to fill the place.” He accomplished that, but couldn’t ultimately lead the team and organization to fulfilling the competitive goal: to bring the Stanley Cup to DC to be displayed in that building.

OPENING STATEMENT

“I should start and will start by thanking and bestowing my appreciation to Ted [Leonsis] and Dick [Patrick]  and their wonderful families and to the whole ownership group and their wonderful families. It’s been a great ride and a lot of fun to manage this hockey club. I’d also like to thank all the terrific players we’ve had who played their guts out for this team over the years and this franchise, for this city. Certainly, our terrific staff upstairs, downstairs and out in the field who made it great to come into work everyday.

Our fan base has been phenomenal. We’ve been selling out for six years I think here every game, and it’ll be another year sold out next year. Really loyal group and passionate group, but the thing that’s always struck me about our fan base that’s really neat, in the 17 years i’ve been here, I think really there were only three or four times in all those years that they really came down on this team and booed them. I find that remarkable because there’s some teams as we know [that] get it three or four times a year or three or four times a month. Three or four times in 17 years, pretty impressive and I hope it’s the way for the next 17 years.

And finally thank you to the media, believe it or not. You’ve been really balanced over the years and I remember when I came here, my first press conference was at the Verizon Center and there were three media people there. Tony Kornheiser was there and I’m sure he had to be talked into coming down, but he was nice enough to come. Rachel Alexander [Nichols] was there and the late Dave Fay, so to go from there to where we are now with the incredible media following that we have now for this hockey club, I’m delighted with it. It’s become a terrific hockey town.

One of the other things that I remember about that first press conference was it wasn’t a long one when you’ve only got three media people and I remember walking out to the middle of the floor after everyone was gone and the Verizon Center wasn’t complete yet, but I remember looking around and saying, ‘Holy smokes, this place is huge.’ And then it dawned on me that I’ve got to fill this place. And we filled it. It has been filled for a long time. I didn’t know that we’d ever be able to do that without winning the Cup, but we played so well and had some really fun teams to watch that we’ve done it. The last piece is the Stanley Cup and I really believe this team is positioned to go back to the finals sometime in the next three years. It’s going to be a really good team going forward.

I felt for five of the last seven years, for five years we really had an opportunity to win a Cup, we were legit. And then I thought the last couple years, we could make the playoffs, but going deep might be hard because I didn’t think we were quite deep enough. And I had to use a lot of picks and young players to try and push that group over the edge. When you’re going for it, you have to do it. We got a little thin, but going forward, we so drafted well, we’ve got a lot of really good young players coming in and I think with a good veteran group that we have and these kids coming in, it’s really positioned well to do really well. I honestly believe they can win a Cup.”

HOW DOES IT FEEL?

“That’s the business. Am I disappointed? I was terminated, of course. But it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had worse days in my life. I’ve got lots to be thankful for and my family’s got lots to be thankful for and lots to look forward to. I’ve told you a number of times, no one’s ever told me I have to be a GM for a living. I signed up for this. There are some dark days, but there are a heck of a lot of good ones. It’s been a fabulous experience. It’s been a fun ride. That’s what it’s supposed to be. This is sports. We’re not trying to feed the world. This is sports. It’s supposed to be fun and for the most part it has been.

WERE YOU EXPECTING THIS?

“My instincts are pretty good I think at this point. I felt it was coming, but in this job, you’re 24 hours away from being fired almost any time. Again, I signed up for it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or not, it doesn’t matter. I refuse to be bitter about anything and I’m not going to look back and I blame no one. I was the manager. I did the best I could. I’m going to look back at all the good things we did and that’s how we’re going to proceed.”

HOW WOULD HE REFLECT ON HIS 17 YEARS IN DC?

“I’m certainly really lucky. It was my first GM gig and we came here hoping we could last a few years and make the right decisions and we’ve been here a long time. My kids have grown up here. It’s amazing. My eldest daughter was six or seven months old. Now she’s off to college. … If there’s another GM’s job in the future and someone gives me an opportunity, I’d love to do it again. And I’d go to Iceland to do it. Doesn’t matter where it is. What I’ve learned in this business is, when you’re winning, it’s great. And when you’re losing, it’s not. It’s been a lot of fun managing an NHL team. I’m really, really lucky.”

IS IT EASIER TO TURN THE PAGE NOW THAT HIS CHILDREN ARE OLDER? 

“We all know that comes with the business. We signed up for it. If there’s a move in the future, we’re ready.”

HAS HE BEEN IN CONTACT WITH OTHER TEAMS YET?

“I haven’t been. I can’t be. They have to go through ownership if someone’s going to call, because I’m still under contract a couple more months. … July 1.”

DOES HE WANT TO JUMP BACK IN RIGHT AWAY?

“It’s got to be the right opportunity, obviously, and I’d be delighted if someone picked up the phone. The job, for me, it’s got to feed the soul. It’s got to feel good. I’ve got to work with good people. As ownership could tell you, it’s never been about the money for me or any of that stuff. it’s about working with great people and having fun with this. Life’s too short to be any other way. So I’m ready. My wife and I can only walk around the block so many times.”

IS HE PROUD OF THE ROOM HE BUILT WITH THE CAPS?

“You win with good people. If you look at all the champions, they’re really good character people, through and through. And there are so many good people in this business, it’s not hard to find them. What’s really interesting about our business is that people that don’t carry themselves the right way get weeded out quickly on the way up. It’s a great league, full of great people, and for the most part, every hockey player you draft is a good kid. They’re a remarkable group to work with. We’ve had really good people here in Washington. We haven’t had any trouble with players.”

DID HE FIGHT FOR OTHERS REMAINING IN THE ORGANIZATION TO KEEP THEIR JOBS?

“I think it’s fair. I’m not exaggerating when I try to explain that this organization is in great shape. We don’t have any bad contracts on the books. Lots of cap space to work with. A great affiliation in Hershey. A whole group of young players coming into the organization. We’ve drafted so well; I honestly believe we’re one of the top five or six teams in the league in drafting. If you look at the players we have and where we’re getting them, we’re doing really well.

We got a little thin the last year or two, but now they’re all coming in again. The team is really positioned to go forward. We have terrific pro scouts, terrific amateur scouts. And all the people we work with in the front office – I look around me and say I couldn’t have made a better hire with this person and that person and that person. And what I’ve tried to do, my management style has always been really flat. I’m easy to get to. I’m going to put you in a position and you own it. And you run with it, you become the expert and you tell me what you need and we’ll get it for you. You’re the expert now. If you tell me to tweak something, shift the priorities for scouts in one region over another, move people around a little bit because one area is producing a lot of players and another isn’t, that sort of thing, you’re the experts. Go ahead.

We have this self-perpetuating organization now with all the good people. It’s going to do really well. I’m not exaggerating. I really believe where this club’s going to be – it starts next year again – it’s going to win a Cup.”

CAN A TEAM WIN THE CUP AROUND ALEX OVECHKIN?

“I don’t really want to answer questions about individuals. I’m going to duck those. This is supposed to be about me saying thanks and so long. I blame no one for anything that’s gone on here in this year not working out. I was the manager and it was a difficult year. We didn’t play anywhere near what we were capable of but we got 90 points. Just a little improvement and it’s a 100 point team next year and probably a lot more. I don’t want to be negative about anything. You raise different people’s names and say this person isn’t doing this or that, I’d like to pass on that kind of stuff.

If you’re asking me if we can win with him, I believed we could win with him.”

WHY WAS HE NEVER ABLE TO GET THE TEAM OVER THE HUMP?

“Sometimes that just happens. I really thought that group for five years could do it. I thought we had to reset a little bit the last year or two but it’s ready to go again. I think the best team we faced this year was Boston. They had their adversity. They were up three-zip on Philly in one series and lost, they’ve lost tough game sevens and everything else but one year they won it. Now they’re comfortable knowing that they’ve got that frame of reference: we’ve done it before and we can do it again.

I remember their GM [Peter Chiarelli] telling me, it wasn’t until there was four minutes to go in game seven in Vancouver – I think they were up 4-1 in the game or something – he said ‘Geez we’re actually going to do this. We’re going to win it.’ I think they went through three game sevens in that run. I remember the first series, against Montreal. Montreal scored late, they went into overtime and Montreal had great chances, two or three chances, and one was an open net and the puck went wide. If it doesn’t go wide maybe everything there changes. But they got through it and they won the Cup and now they’ve sort of come of age. The GM’s done a really good job there, it’s a good team. Detroit was that way at one time, they won one and then they got even better.

We didn’t catch that break. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. This team is young enough, the veterans are at the right age here. You’ve got experienced players with young guys coming in. It’s the perfect combination, that’s what you need. It’s not about free agents and everything else. It’s a good group of solid veteran players plus young kids coming in to push up from the bottom and that’s where I think this team is. They may not have done it in phase one but phase two is right there and they’re going to be good.”

WAS HE SURPRISED ADAM OATES WAS LET GO AS WELL?

“Nothing surprises me in this business. That’s unfortunate but it’s unfortunate for Adam because it was a short tenure. I’ve been lucky. I had 17 years.”

YOU MENTIONED A ‘RESET’ EARLIER. WHEN SPECIFICALLY WAS THAT YOU FELT IT WAS NEEDED?

“It’s hard to get specific because one year, when you’ve been in a place a long time one year sort of blends into the other and as the guys on my staff will tell you I don’t have a very good memory so it’s good that I don’t look back much. I just felt like we had a real good run there for five years and certainly loved working with Bruce. I loved working with Dale. That might have been it – when Dale didn’t come back. I thought he did a tremendous job of making this a “team” and sort of resetting after that, getting a new coach, I just thought we were a little thin on players coming into the system.

But when you think you can win a Cup you owe it to the players in the room and all your fans, you’ve got to go for it. So I was trading second round picks and prospects, second round picks and prospects and at some point you get a touch thin. Doesn’t mean we weren’t good teams the last two years, we just weren’t injury proof. When you’ve got good young guys coming in, if you lose a guy pull somebody up and you keep winning games. At one time we were calling up the Fleischmanns, Brooks Laichs, Alzner, Carlson those guys. Now they’re veterans and I didn’t have a complete group like that to go to again.

When you’ve been doing it for a while your instincts tell you some things and I thought we were a playoff team. I thought this should have been our seventh year in a row of making the playoffs. I’m disappointed we didn’t but it doesn’t mean it’s not a good team. Those kids are sort of here now to help and it’s unfortunate the last two years that we lost a guy like Brooks Laich for almost the entire season both years. Then Jack Hillen almost the entire season both years. Those guys were very good for us, good veteran players and I didn’t have the kids to fill in.

It’s hard to make a trade in this league during the season now or that would have required giving away some future and I didn’t want to do that. Last summer was really tough because of sort of gridlock around the league, it was hard to make any moves.”

WHAT KIND OF STYLE DO YOU SEE THIS TEAM PLAYING?

“What sells tickets is entertaining hockey and we’ve always tried to play that way. We play an exciting brand of hockey. Because I don’t think hockey should ever be boring. Since we’ve come out of the last lockout, it hasn’t. Eight years ago was the one where we changed things. And the hockey’s been really good since then. We had this fabulous, young team that came out of nowhere. I think we can keep playing that style. What you just have to be mindful of is you have to look after the goal, after your own end. And we didn’t do that quite good enough this year. But that’s the way you win. It’s kind of neat, going back. We rebuilt this team quickly.

It was eight years ago we had that first work stoppage and right before that we met with ownership. We’d just made the playoffs, and after the playoffs we thought maybe we should tear this team down and get ready for — because it was an older team with big contracts — maybe we should tear it down and get ready for the new world under the new CBA. We did that, and basically we built the team and we were a playoff team in two years. We were an exciting team, a good team, a team that had a chance to win.

So because it as built quickly — if you look at some other clubs in that time, like Chicago missed the playoffs nine out of ten years, L.A. and Pittsburgh missed the playoffs a lot of years — we did it a little quicker than everybody else and didn’t quite build the foundation I would have like to have had. But we did a good job. This team was really fun to watch. And spent a lot of assets to put them over the top. You want teams that are fun to watch. And we were. You can’t teach people to score or anything else. You can teach them to defend and just a little bit more emphasis on protecting your end of the ice it’s going to be a real good team,

WHAT ARE THE TEAM’S BIGGEST NEEDS RIGHT NOW?

“I’m going to give you a broad-based answer. It’s really not for me to decide anymore. That’s for the next guy. They’ll take a look at it. I talked with ownership. We had a great conversation last Thursday. I told them where we were and what the team might need. But it’s not a lot. This team right now, if nothing is done, just with the kids we have and the veterans is a playoff team. If a couple things are done, it’s a Cup team. There isn’t much to fix. And it’s a pretty easy fix.”

DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS? IF YOU HAVE ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY, WOULD YOU DO THINGS ANY DIFFERENTLY?

“Of course I have regrets. Would I do things differently if I get another opportunity? I would probably manage the same way I’ve managed here. There’s lots to reflect on and I think we did a really good job. So no, I don’t think I’d change a lot.”

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO HANDLE THE “HARD” SIDE OF THE BUSINESS?

“Well, it always comes down to, in any business, treating people right. I hope it wasn’t easy for ownership to make a decision on me. And I’ve had to make those decisions to make changes in the organization and those aren’t easy and I don’t think I was ever really good at it. It was hard to. There were nights I remember vividly with a couple of people, being at my dinner table with my family worrying about the guy I just had to make a change with sitting at dinner with his family. Those were tough nights. So I know what it feels like. But you have to make them. The organization comes first and the individual is a close second. But I think we did it the right way.

It means a lot to me that a guy like Stan Wong, who was here 15, 16 years ago, I made a decision there. When I see the guy he gives me a big hug. There’s no hate in his heart and he’s a real quality guy. I’ve tried to treat people right and if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be in the business.”

WHAT WAS YOUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH ADAM OATES?

“Again, I don’t want to talk about individuals because when you do that you either miss somebody that you should be praising and people get upset and I just would rather have a happy day and duck individual talk.”

WAS HE SURPRISED THE TEAM WASN’T MORE SUCCESSFUL THE PAST TWO SEASONS?

“We won a division title last year and played really well and went to a Game 7 and it didn’t work out for us, We got 90 points this year in a year where I thought we were a little thin. I’m not gonna pin anything on anyone. I’m the manager and I was supposed to get it done and it didn’t happen this year.”

DID HE HAVE AN OPINION ON WHY OVECHKIN SCORED 51 GOALS BUT PLUS/MINUS WAS SO POOR?

“Of course I have opinions, but those issues are for the next guy.”

BUT IT WAS SO PERPLEXING…

“Yeah, and maybe….again, it shouldn’t be pinned on anyone. The guy scored 51 goals so I’m not going to say anything negative about anyone here. No thanks.”

WHAT WERE THE TONES OF THE CONVERSATIONS WITH TED LEONSIS AND DICK PATRICK?

“Well, I thought they were really good. I was really grateful for the opportunity to sit down and talk things through. I thought Dick Patrick was really good and then Ted wanted to do the exit interviews this year and I thought it was a good year to do it. And so to be able to sit down and talk for two-and-a-half hours as we did the other day, I thought was really healthy. What I didn’t want was our last game was on Sunday, and get whacked on Sunday night or Monday morning. I wanted a chance to just breath a little and talk about it and I thought it worked really well.”

WHEN DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT THE DECISION?

“Dick called me. I was out of town. Dick called me on Saturday morning and when I saw that it was from the office at 10 o’clock on Saturday morning I said ‘Well, this isn’t going to be good news.’ And it was Dick and he said ‘I don’t have good news.’ And I said ‘Dick, it’s okay. It’s okay. I don’t want you to feel bad about me. Everything’s okay.’ And he was great. He was great. And then Ted called about an hour later.”

WAS THERE A PREVIOUS MEETING?

“No, it wasn’t. I met with Dick a little bit and that’s when he said ‘We’re going to take our time, talk to everyone.’ So the longest meeting was a couple of days ago.”

CAN IT BE HEALTHY FOR A TEAM/ORGANIZATION TO GET THOSE ISSUES OUT IN THE OPEN?

“I’m not sure whether that works for everybody. But I think doing it here, this time around, ownership got a real good sense of what was going on.”

ON THE LOSS TO MONTREAL IN 2010 AND THE REPERCUSSIONS:

“That’s a really good question. That was a hard one. You win a Presidents’ Trophy. That almost felt like one of the longest years I’ve had here because I think we wrapped up a playoff position sometime in January and it felt like forever until the end of the season.

And then you get into the series and you’re up 3-1 and you don’t win. That was really hard on everyone. In the third period of that game, we tie it up and if the referee doesn’t wash it out, you get the next one, the game’s over, you win the series and away you go.

Those are the margins in our business. Had we won that or had we, in New York in Game 5 [of the 2012 second-round playoff series] when they tied it up with six seconds to go, if the referee doesn’t call a penalty [on Joel Ward] … Margins are thin in this business. If you’re lucky enough to get a bounce and win, then it makes you a good team for a long time.”

ON CHANGING HOW THE TEAM PLAYED AND COACHED AS A RESULT:

“I think that was the year we asked Bruce to play a little more defensive and the amazing thing was he did. He pulled it off. He played two different ways and continued to win. He’s an outstanding coach and a good guy.”

ON IF CONSTANT TURNOVER IN COACHES AFFECTS LONG-TERM SUCCESS:

“No, I don’t think so.  I don’t want to be negative here. We missed the playoffs by three points for the first time in seven years. We’re doing something really well. Systems don’t matter a whole lot. That should be 10-15 percent of what you’re doing. That’s your foundation. It’s about coaching and making it work and our coaches have been making it work.”

ADVICE FOR HIS SUCCESSOR:

“Enjoy the journey, that’s what it’s about. Have fun and enjoy the journey. And when the head worms start going, call somebody.”

ON WHETHER HE HAD NECESSARY AUTONOMY IN ORGANIZATION: 

“I made the decisions.”

IS HE GOING ON VACATION FOR A WHILE?

“I don’t know. I’m usually trying to get ready for the next game. I don’t know. I still have kids in school, so there will be time for that later.”

ON HOW HE WOULD LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED IN DC:

“Well, I didn’t die, you know. It felt like that a few times. But listen, I did the best I could because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I did the best I could. I put everything I had into it so I don’t have any flowery final words other than it’s been a great ride and I feel very, very lucky and fortunate.”

OPINION: Capitals sack McPhee, Oates; Leonsis and Patrick now on the hook

When the head coach completely disregards the main trade deadline acquisition you’ve acquired — two years in a row — you know there’s a problem.

Saturday, the Washington Capitals announced they would not renew general manager George McPhee’s contract, thus terminating a 17-year partnership. In addition, the team relieved their two-year head coach Adam Oates of his duties.

Owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick spoke with effusive praise for both men, reassuring all in attendance at the press conference and those watching on the internet that neither men would be unemployed for very long. In McPhee’s case, it wouldn’t be shocking if he was named GM of the Canucks or Flames before he meets with the media on Monday afternoon in D.C.

Oates was a no-brainer. He misapplied assets, was inflexible and presided over a team that steadily got worse and worse possession-wise under his tutelage. Though the players — to a man — praised him on clearout day and decried that he was not the problem, in reality he was a significant portion of it this season.

As for McPhee, well…

I’ll go on record here. I think George McPhee is one of the smartest men in hockey. He keeps his business in-house, is professional under all circumstances (well, except for this), a fairly strong drafter and is a shrewd negotiator. He was responsible for the fire sale and rebuild, and has kept this team in the playoffs for the past seven years. Until this season.

McPhee has also completed some very head-scratching trades, had a couple of very notable busts in the first round of the draft, and built a team that was perennial successful but never able to get past the second round, winning just three playoff series in the Ovechkin era. He never acquired the defensive stalwart this team needed so badly.

The Caps were destined to fail this season, and it’s been coming for a while. Really, it’s been coming since they allowed their identity to be stolen following the 2010 flame-out against the Montreal Canadiens. They abandoned the high-powered, puck possession style that dominated the NHL and won a President’s Trophy and it’s been a steady decline ever since.

Bruce Boudreau was ousted, Dale Hunter fled, and now Oates is jettisoned after just two seasons.

There are a lot of executives employed across the NHL that don’t have half the acumen that McPhee has. Pray the Caps don’t end up with one of them. Change is exciting, and probably warranted in this case. But things could get worse before they get better. Will modern Caps fans — the ones that came on board as fans of the “Young Guns” — be willing to stay on through a rebuild, with a possible teardown of those players they fell in love with?

Veteran Caps fans will remember some very lean years. I’m not just talking the doldrums the team was in before they sold off Bondra, Jagr, Gonchar, Lang and Konowalchuk. I’m talking the days where there were more Red Wings fans in the arena than Caps fans in the Stanley Cup finals.   I’m talking the old days when Scott Stevens, Dino Ciccarelli and others were run out of town due to an inappropriate incident in a limousine.  I’m talking real old days, when the city almost lost the team due to complete ignorance of the District’s sporting fanbase.

You think it’s bad they missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years? You want dark days? Everything is relative, friends.

Now, let’s discuss the elephant in the room.

The Caps allowed McPhee to walk and fired Oates, under contract for another season (so they are eating that cash), yet they did not fire any of the assistant coaches. Leonsis allowed Patrick to give the news that the team does not expect to make any more changes to the staff and that they would prefer to have a manager in place before hiring a coach or conducting the NHL Draft, but don’t see that as a necessity.

Say what?

They dismissed the man that has been guiding this franchise for the past 17 seasons, yet don’t feel it’s necessary to have his replacement in place before either hiring a new coach or conducting this year’s draft? And they are retaining all the assistants, including Caps “Mt. Rushmore” members Calle Johansson and Olie Kolzig?

Really?

It’s hard not to look at this and think that Oates didn’t hire either assistant for their current position. It’s hard not to look at this — now — and think that Johansson and Kolzig were hired as public relation moves to act as a buffer to deflect criticism of the franchise out of respect for what they did as players. Neither had NHL credentials as coaches before they came here. The head coach they worked for was summarily dismissed. The GM was allowed to walk. But yet, the highly respected ex-players remain? Especially when the defense and goaltending were a source of criticism all season long, locally and nationally?

I loved Johansson and Kolzig as players as much as anyone. But their track record as coaches speaks for itself.

How can we separate Johansson and Kolzig from McPhee and Oates? How can they justify it?

The franchise is in turmoil. It’s at a crossroads. The decisions the organization — Leonsis and Patrick — make in the coming weeks and months will dictate the playing situation Alex Ovechkin will be in for the remainder of his time in D.C. Only they are responsible now. There’s no more scapegoat. There’s no more buffer or shield.

In the Ovechkin era, this organization has made promises and boasts and predictions of multiple Cups to a loyal and passionate fanbase. There’s no wonder there’s a sense of entitlement, both from the fans and the players themselves. They’ve bought in to it as much as anyone.

Make no mistake now though. Leonsis and Patrick are now directly responsible for whether or not Ovechkin takes this franchise to a Stanley Cup final that the fanbase, the team, the organization so richly think they deserve.

Here’s hoping they make the right decisions. I’m not as sure today as I was yesterday that will happen.

Capitals’ Leonsis and Patrick speak on front office changes: “New leadership at this time was needed”

Saturday morning, the Washington Capitals announced that they would not be renewing General Manager George McPhee’s contract and that they had relieved head coach Adam Oates of his duties.

McPhee was one of the longest tenured general managers in the National Hockey League, and he’d been with the Capitals organization since 1997. The Capitals made the playoffs for six straight years, and as irony would have it, the team would fail to make the postseason in the same year as his contract was rumored to be expiring.

Adam Oates coached 137 games for the Capitals, an organization that he was a part of as a player as well. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame the same day he was hired by the Capitals in 2012. His meticulous – some would say nitpicky – coaching style, coupled with a lackluster team performance in the regular season and failure to make the playoffs, outweighed the benefits of his accomplishments: constructing a juggernaut power play and moving Alex Ovechkin to right wing. (Ironically, Ovechkin scored more than half of his 52 goals this season playing the left wing on the power play).

It became less of a matter of “if” and more of a question as to when changes would be made. There was speculation on Thursday that changes were coming, but all talk was quickly extinguished, no doubt because the decision hadn’t been made, as we now know.

Capitals Majority Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick formally addressed the media at Verizon Center late Saturday afternoon. Leonsis thanked both Oates and McPhee for the work they’d done for the Capitals organization, but said that the decision came down to the direction the team was heading.

“It came down, honestly, after all of the work that we did, and our due diligence, for Dick and I to sit down and say “do we think this team with this leadership can compete for or win a Stanley Cup going into next season?”, said Leonsis. “And our answer was obviously no, and that’s why we made the change.”

The ultimate goal for any NHL franchise is to win a Stanley Cup, and Leonsis and Patrick felt as though the leadership they had in place was not going to take them there. Leonsis admitted it was a tough day for him.

Leonsis said he and Patrick conducted exit interviews for Capitals players, but would not say what was discussed in the spirit of maintaining confidentiality and trust.

“I will say, and this is very important to that process, that when we spoke to all of the individuals [players], we said, “we know this is uncomfortable, and you should be able to tell us whatever you want or tell us nothing, but whatever you tell us is going to be between me and Dick”,  because we’re seeking out information, you want to respect that,” said Leonsis.

“I’m not going to tell you who we spoke to and what they said. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” he said. “But the bottom line, and the timeline, so everyone understands –we conducted a lot of interviews. And on Thursday, we spoke with Adam and with George. And yesterday, Dick and I compared all of our notes, and it was late in the day when we made the decision.”

“We were left with the overall impression that the team wasn’t trending towards being able to compete for a Stanley Cup. That was just a clear signal in why we felt it was time to make those changes,” Leonsis concluded. “I’d say there’s lots of noise, but the signal was that we need to get back to being totally focused on one goal.”

Patrick added that they’d like to have a new general manager in place prior to the NHL Draft on June 27-28, but that it’s not a hard deadline for them. He said the organization has people in place that are capable of handing the responsibilities of draft day if a new GM has not been hired by that time.

As for the matter of selecting a head coach, Patrick was similarly vague: “Generally speaking, we’d prefer to have the manager in place and his involvement in selecting a coach, but could happen otherwise.”

There are still many questions that bear asking and answering in the coming days, but one thing is certain: no matter what led up to the decision to fire McPhee and Oates, Leonsis and Patrick came to the decision that the franchise had lost sight of its ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup, and hope to set that right by starting fresh with new leadership in the Capitals’ front office.

 

 

 

 

 

Caps clean house

After failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the Washington Capitals finally made the moves many were expecting since the end of the regular season.

The team announced Saturday that the contract of general manager George McPhee would not be renewed and that head coach Adam Oates had been relieved of his duties.

McPhee became general manager of the Caps in 1997 and in that first season the team won its only conference championship. He was never able to recreate that success, however, and the team has since won only three of 12 playoff series.

McPhee is probably best known for orchestrating the fire sale that saw the team trade away its best players through the 2003-04 season in an attempt to reboot the team’s roster. The Caps’ dropped in the standings allowing them to win the draft lottery and draft Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the 2004 draft.

The Capitals were rebuilt into a winning team, but not a championship team despite their talent-laden roster. McPhee has been criticized in recent years for relying too much on those core players he brought in for the rebuild and his failure to find a coach able to bring the team over the hump.

Of the five coaches McPhee hired in his tenure, Bruce Cassidy was the only one that did not have a prior relationship with the organization. Many believed McPhee was unnecessarily limiting the team’s options at head coach thus preventing the hiring of someone with the championship pedigree the Caps so desperately needed.

Oates was McPhee’s final hire as head coach and joins his now former boss in unemployment.

Despite the team’s initial success in Oates’ first lockout-abbreviated season, his first full season was a shocking failure as the team failed to reach the postseason.

Much of the blame for that failure was laid at Oates’ feet due to the number of curious decisions he made during his tenure. From mandating  that players play only on their shooting side to promoting fourth line anchor Jay Beagle to the top line alongside Ovechkin, fans and analysts alike have watched the past season with utter confusion.

Oates was brought in after serving as assistant coach in Tampa Bay and New Jersey where he was known for his offensive acumen and running a lethal power play. He was indeed able to reignite the Caps’ power play, but did little else for a team loaded with talent.

Oates also bumped players such as Martin Erat and Dustin Penner, down to the fourth line in favor of those who better fit his ‘system.’ Moves such as those demonstrated a clear disconnect between coach and general manager as both were players acquired by trades while Oates was coach. By choosing not to fully utilize either player, Oates showed that clearly he and McPhee had very different ideas on the team’s direction.

That direction, however, brought them both to the same destination.

Though his inability to build a championship team ultimately cost him his job, it is important not to dismiss McPhee’s accomplishments while in D.C. The Caps had little history of success prior to McPhee’s tenure and he managed to build a consistent winner out or a struggling franchise.

Analysts have already brought up his name in connection to other jobs, such as the recent opening in Vancouver where McPhee previously served as vice president and director of hockey operations.

The future is much more cloudy for Oates, who lasted only two seasons in his first NHL head coaching gig.

Oates was an extremely successful assistant and I’m guessing more teams believe that is the role he is best suited for at the NHL level. His only success in Washington was for those same duties he performed as an assistant, namely the power play.

Based on what we saw in Washington, hiring Oates as a head coach would mean completely shifting the way that organization approaches and thinks about hockey. Teams would have to be willing to go through such a transformation before taking a chance on Oates. Sometimes, those coaches can change the game.

Sometimes, however, those philosophies don’t pan out. That was the case for the Caps.

As for what the next step for the Caps may be, expect owner Ted Leonsis to hire a general manager first. General managers tend to prefer their own coaching hires so to hire a coach first would be putting the cart before the horse. For that reason, predicting the next coach is nearly impossible as we don’t know what the new general manager may be looking for.

Given the state of the team and the organization’s frustration over their postseason struggles, however, Leonsis will look for a general manager with a championship pedigree and most likely demand a coach with similar success.

Those type of candidates don’t grow on trees, but it is critical that Leonsis do whatever is necessary in order to make the right hires this offseason.

Though many were expecting and advocating for the team to replace McPhee and Oates, it is important to remember that this was only the first step. Cleaning house was the right move if and only if the team makes the right hires to replace them. If not, the Caps will end up right back in this same disappointing position a lot faster than they may expect.

Capitals announce front office changes: McPhee and Oates relieved of duties

The Washington Capitals announced Saturday morning that they will not be renewing General Manager George McPhee’s contract and that head coach Adam Oates has also been let go.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – April 26, 2014

Capitals Announce Changes to Front Office and Coaching Staff

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals will not renew the contract of vice president and general manager George McPhee and have relieved head coach Adam Oates of his duties, majority owner Ted Leonsis and president Dick Patrick announced today.

“George has been a terrific, longtime executive for our franchise, and I’m grateful for his commitment to the Capitals organization for the past 17 years,” said Leonsis. “Under his leadership the Capitals won seven division titles, twice were the top team in the Eastern Conference, earned a Presidents’ Trophy and competed in the playoffs 10 times. He was a highly effective manager who is extremely well regarded within our organization and around the NHL. We have the utmost respect for him and his family and wish them nothing but the very best.

“We are also appreciative of Adam’s efforts and thank him for his devotion, work ethic and contributions to the Capitals the past two seasons. He is a smart, tactical coach who improved the performance of several of our players. He is a Hall of Fame player who we believe will be a longtime coach in the NHL. We will help him in whatever way we are able and wish him well.

This is an important time for our organization, and I feel a change is needed in order to get us back to being a top echelon team that competes for the Stanley Cup.”

Leonsis and Patrick will be available to the media today, April 26 at 4 p.m. in the Verizon Center media room.

All quiet on the Kettler front (for now)

Despite some conflicting reports the other day from two trusted sources (and both good friends), it’s been almost two weeks since the end of the Washington Capitals season, and the fates of GM George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates are still unknown.

To recap: the team announced on breakdown day that McPhee had met with owner Ted Leonsis and president Dick Patrick, and would not address the media that day. Later in the day. McPhee did poke his head out and verified that yes, he did meet with the brass and that they would meet again but he would not speak until that happened. He has not spoken to the media since.

On the same day, Oates did address the media and indicated that he had not spoken with McPhee, Leonsis or Patrick and was not scheduled to. He also informed the media that he did not have exit interviews scheduled with the players and hoped he would have the opportunity to address them before they and he left town for the summer. There has been no report of that happening and Oates has not spoken to the media since either.

It’s very possible the team is still debating about retaining McPhee and leaving Oates in limbo until a decision is made with the general manager.

Meanwhile, there have been very few rumors around the NHL about other GMs and coaches on the hot seat. Usually by this time, there are a number of coaching availabilities, but the only coach to be sacked thus far was Barry Trotz by Nashville.

Where does this leave us? Pretty much the same place as we were on breakdown day, unfortunately. Let’s take a look at the options [note: our good friends at RMNB have already discussed these scenarios. This is my take, albeit much less funny.]:

1) Blow It Up

The team could allow McPhee’s contract to expire (it reportedly runs out after the draft) and fire Oates. Leonsis has never fired a general manager in his stewardship of either the Caps or the Wizards, and the time this is taking might speak to his reluctance to do so.

In his only comments to the media (through his personal blog), Leonsis said the team would take a meticulous look at the status of the franchise and not make any rash decisions based simply on missing the playoffs this season. But the team DID miss the playoffs, where Leonsis makes a bulk of his operating revenue and missing out hurts his bottom line as much as it does the goodwill his team has built in the sporting community in DC.

The criticisms of McPhee and Oates have been well documented, in this space and throughout the Caps blogosphere — as well as the national media. The team was ill-equipped to start the season, then mismanaged throughout. The team played without an identity, functional on offense almost solely dependent on the power play and completely inept on the defensive end. They were one of the worst possession teams in the league, and the coach appeared inflexible to change and unwilling to adapt.

2) Rearrange deck chairs

The team could keep McPhee (presumably on double-secret probation) and dump Oates to hire their fourth coach in three calendar years. In my mind, this option is the favorite in this race.

There are several attractive coaching candidates available already, from the aforementioned Trotz to Peter Laviolette, and as teams are eliminated from the playoffs there would be any number of attractive assistants available. Many have decried McPhee’s proclivity to hire former Caps and first-time head coaches to helm the team. If he returns, you have to imagine he’ll be influenced to bring in an experienced coach, preferably one with a Stanley Cup resume. Those guys are few and far between, though.

3) Maintain Status Quo

The team could stay the course and keep both McPhee and Oates. They could speak to continuity, injuries (though not a valid excuse) and the power play as reasons to keep both McPhee and Oates. This could also spur a mutiny. Many (most) Caps fans are at a boiling point, having become accustomed to postseason play, if not success.

It’s hard to imagine no change to the braintrust. Missing the playoffs is simply inexcusable. There are gaps in the talent, for sure. But there is simply too much of it for this collection of athletes to miss out on the second season. The Caps have $14 million under the salary cap with which to work this offseason, and could make even more room if they can find takers for — or buy out — Brooks Laich or Mike Green’s contracts.
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It’s hard to say which of the above scenarios the salary cap space affects most.

At the very least, we’ll see changes to the personnel. The Caps need to decide on Mikhail Grabovski, probably find a depth center to allow Eric Fehr to go back to wing, and 2-3 NHL caliber defensemen. It’s a long shopping list, but they have quiet a bit of cash to work with.

At this point, I would advocate for option number two. I fear the executive the team brings in if they sack McPhee. The NHL is littered with folks in evaluative positions that I would find unpalatable. Call me coward, but I’ll go with the devil I know in this case. McPhee is a shrewd negotiator, has a good (maybe not great) track record in the draft, and has proven adept at finding productive bargains, both on the free agent wire and via trade.

I think his hand might have been forced in a couple of recent moves, and it will be interesting if he is retained how he conducts his business going forward. I maintain that the moves he made at the deadline were not the moves of a man fearing for his job. The deals for Dustin Penner (who should have helped this team immensely, instead of the player getting banished to the fourth line) and Jaroslav Halak brought in veteran players for the stretch drive, yes. But they were also on expiring contracts and McPhee shed the contracts of Martin Erat (another resident of Oates’ Siberia) and Michal Neuvirth.

For now, though, we all wait.

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