Members of the Washington Capitals trekked west of the District on Monday to Pev’s Paintball Park in Aldie, Va., for a team-bonding exercise.
Many NHL clubs do activities like this to help foster team chemistry, but the Caps probably don’t need it. If there is a theme that resonates through this organization, it is stability and familiarity.
Much of the front office staff has worked together for at least a decade. The team on the ice has remained practically unchanged the past three seasons.
That continuity is one of the major reasons why the Caps are one of the leading contenders to capture the Stanley Cup this season, which begins Thursday night in Boston.
“If you look around the league and franchises that don’t have stable ownership, the management usually isn’t very stable either, and as a result the teams usually aren’t very successful,” general manager George McPhee said. “If you have a stable, consistent approach, you are able to do what we did, which is really rebuild a team into a heck of a team. The hardest thing to do in pro sports is win a championship, and the second-hardest thing to do is rebuild a team.”
This will be the 10th season since Ted Leonsis-led Lincoln Holdings LLC purchased the franchise, but there are several key decision-makers who predate the owners. McPhee was hired to replace longtime general manager David Poile in 1997.
Six of the people McPhee hired to his scouting staff within a year of his appointment, including amateur scouting director Ross Mahoney, are still here. Then there is team president Dick Patrick, who bridges the gap between multiple regimes as he enters his 27th season with the team.
“Dick Patrick has always been the constant there,” said Poile, who is now Nashville’s GM. “He was always the go-to guy for me when I needed something with ownership. He went to bat for me a lot of times when maybe the waters were a little choppy. He has been the glue.”
Leonsis and Patrick deserve kudos for their patience. There have been two chances for Leonsis to clean house and mold his staff that many other owners have seized - when he took control of the team in 1999 and when he decided to blow it up during the 2003-04 campaign.
Instead of the conventional path, Leonsis and Patrick have the core staff (save for some coaching changes) together. This season has the potential to be their reward.
“We architected and wrote the plan together,” Leonsis said on why he didn’t terminate McPhee before rebuilding the team. “There’s been no need to make any changes other than what we did with [coach Bruce Boudreau], and Bruce was kind of the crowning achievement because George had brought him into Hershey and knew what he could do.”
It certainly appears keeping the group together has helped improve the organization’s performance at the draft. From 1997 to 2001, the Caps selected only five players who went on to play at least 150 games in the NHL - and only two did so with Washington.
The next five years were a vast improvement. Seven guys from 2002 to 2006 have logged at least 164 games, and that group makes up the core of the franchise (Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin).
Picking higher in the draft because the team was rebuilding is part of that, but having a group of scouts work together for that long also has to be of some advantage.
“I think it’s really important because we’ve grown as a group, and we know where each other is coming from - what we’re feeling and what we’re seeing and thinking,” Mahoney said. “There is something to be said for that - having that experience as a group and the chemistry that grows out of it.”