New Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan gave a hard stare, unblinking as he pondered the question until tears welled in his eyes.
At age 55, MacLellan had worked with former general manager George McPhee for 14 years. They went to college together at Bowling Green. McPhee was the man who convinced MacLellan to give up a budding career as a stockbroker to return to the NHL.
Given his long ties to the organization, some critics see MacLellan’s ascension to the general manager position as more of the same for an organization that hasn’t broken through in the Stanley Cup playoffs and this season didn’t qualify at all. Owner Ted Leonsis had promised a fresh set of eyes and new voice.
Instead, he and team president Dick Patrick stayed in-house when they promoted MacLellan and then hired Barry Trotz to be the new coach. Both men were introduced at a Tuesday press conference at Verizon Center.
“I don’t know if I could give specific [differences],” MacLellan said of his predecessor. “[McPhee] is a good friend, he’s a character guy…”
With that MacLellan apologized and briefly backed away from a media scrum after being asked about his ties to McPhee. He was overcome with emotion.
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“We’re different people. We have different personalities, different ways you approach things,” MacLellan said after composing himself. “His decision-making process is gonna be different than mine, experiences we’ve had are going to be different, the process we go through will be different.”
And that’s exactly what MacLellan, an assistant general manager with the Caps the last seven years, told Leonsis when the two men met to discuss the job.
McPhee’s contract was up at the end of the season and the organization announced last month it would not be renewed. Patrick said the team spoke with 15 candidates about becoming the new general manager and Leonsis denied media reports that one was NHL great Wayne Gretzky. But it was MacLellan’s brutal honesty that set him apart.
“He led off with some of the things that I have to do to be a better owner. I thought that was very brave and very astute,” Leonsis said. “Because you don’t want to hear things like that. I thought that was very, very straightforward and honest and authentic to him.”
In another setting it also could have doomed his chances from the start. But MacLellan wasn’t worried about that. Being the assistant general manager for player personnel, he already knew the organization inside and out. That provided him a clear vision of what the Caps needed to get back into Stanley Cup contention.
“I didn’t think I had anything to lose,” MacLellan said.
And so in an interview that was part personal story, part hockey philosophy and part vision for the future, MacLellan made his case. He told Leonsis that the organization needed to be better at determining what assets it holds and when to unload them at top price. He discussed the use of advanced stats, understanding how they supplement scouts’ views and when they lose value.
MacLellan also emphasized the need for better continuity with AHL affiliate Hershey, a strength in previous years for Washington but one that has slipped with one coaching change after another. As the interim general manager after McPhee’s departure, MacLellan helped negotiate the affiliate renewal with Hershey.
He also told Leonsis that the team needed to foster better relationships with NHL player agents. That had become a point of contention under McPhee.
“I mentioned this to Brian this morning: His was the most negative of the interviews,” Leonsis said. “There’s that great quote ‘With familiarity comes contempt’ and I like that brutal honesty that he brought to it. But you would think that he would have that because he was able to do the scouting for us around the league, but also knew what we had and where we had to work the most on.”
MacLellan praised the amateur scouting department run by Ross Mahoney. He hopes to add staff in the pro scouting department and tweak how things are done on that side. Player development was also labeled a weakness in recent years. MacLellan will still work with Don Fishman, an assistant general manager and the team’s salary cap specialist.
Trotz, 51, coached 15 seasons in Nashville, where he was the franchise’s only coach. He began his career with the Washington organization in 1990 when he was hired as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Baltimore Skipjacks. He was eventually the organization’s AHL head coach for five years.
Leonsis said that Trotz was the only coaching candidate that the team considered given its need for an experienced veteran. That interest was mutual. Trotz instructed his agent to find a way to get him to Washington. For him, it was like returning to his roots. Now the challenge is to — in a word Leonsis used repeatedly — “refresh” the Caps.
“Sometimes you come into a situation and it seems like the previous coach didn’t do anything right. I was there a couple of weeks ago,” said Trotz, who was fired by Nashville last month. “It’s just change. What I bring in will be a little different and hopefully — with what they already do well here — maybe we can get the right formula to take this team to the next level.”
• Brian McNally can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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