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.”
Added McPhee: “If you have good people that know what they’re doing, whether it is president, GM, scouts, coaches, trainers - you hang onto them because they are hard to find. Good people who get along are hard to find. There’s a lot of egos in this business, and we’ve tried to find people who don’t have big egos.”
Continuity in the front office and commitment to rebuilding are manifested by stability on the roster. While the Caps lost four players to free agency this offseason, McPhee needed to add only two veterans because of the depth he had built.
When the Caps open the regular season Thursday, there will be three players (Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison and Jose Theodore) who have joined the organization since Boudreau was named coach in November 2007. Nearly two-thirds of the other teams in the league will have at least that many players in their opening-game lineup putting on their sweater for the first time.
“Every year you look at teams around the league that have a good team every year, but it takes them a month, six weeks, two months to jell as a team,” captain Chris Clark said. “We have the luxury of having the same team basically the last three years. The core guys have been the same guys.”
This is certainly an advantage for the franchise, but with it comes increased expectations. Washington took the eventual Stanley Cup champions to Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs in May, and now the Caps are one of five or six favorites to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup this season.
Leonsis and McPhee have put together a foundation that could make the club a contender for years. In the present, anything short of playing for the Cup likely will be a disappointment.
“At this point in the year, we have a good enough team to do a lot of damage in the playoffs. If something ever happens that we don’t do it, I think it is going to be a huge failure,” Clark said. “To a guy, everybody would tell you the same thing: We all have really high expectations. We can’t control some things, but if we have our team together, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go a long way.”
Added McPhee: “We could have won the Stanley Cup last year. We were that close, but every year is different. … This is a very, very good league. It is hard to push through and win a Cup, but people seem to think we’re one of the teams that can do it. … We want to stay one of those teams.”