Photo: Chris Gordon
“I don’t know if I could give specifics,” Brian MacLellan said when asked how he differs from his former boss George McPhee. “He’s a good friend. He’s a character guy.”
Then MacLellan broke down. After 10 years in the NHL, MacLellan retired from league in 1992. He got an MBA, becoming an investment banker. In 2000, his old college teammate McPhee brought him back to the sport, asking him to join his young administration in Washington as a part-time scout. MacLellan accepted. Thirteen years later, MacLellan was standing up against a wall at Verizon Center having just filled McPhee job. The two talked during MacLellan’s interview process.
“You know, it’s a hard thing,” MacLellan said, gathering himself. “We’re different people. We have different personalities, different way to approach things. I think any two people are different.”
“We’re good friends,” he added. “We’re really good friends, and we’ve grown up together.”
When the Capitals fired George McPhee and Adam Oates last month, owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick talked of a new path. Instead of hiring former Caps and organizational insiders, it looked as if Washington would select proven outsiders this time around.
Announcing the hiring of Barry Trotz as the team’s new head coach on Monday night, they did just that. While Trotz’s style may not fit the Caps current personnel — he spent the last 15 years coaching a defense-first Nashville team — no one would argue that he isn’t a smart coach. It’s a question of fit versus fitness for the job, but that will be answered in time.
The managerial hire, however, is more interesting. Leonsis and Patrick went with their usual method of selection for that position, promoting Brian MacLellan from his previous job as McPhee’s assistant GM. While the hires were announced together, MacLellan was the interim GM after McPhee’s departure and actively recruited Trotz.
MacLellan is an intelligent man, but the move doesn’t seem to be an inspired break with the past, though that may not have been necessary. On its face, this looks to be a continuation of the McPhee era. The men are the same age, having gone to the same school, with MacLellan acting as McPhee’s right hand for the last seven years. The front office and scouting staff will also remain largely untouched.
“Our process might change a little bit, but I think we’re going to be good going forward,” MacLellan said. “I think they’ve done a real good job. I don’t think there’s going to be any changes there.”
While MacLellan has been with the franchise since the start of the new millennium, many fans didn’t know he existed before he took on the role of interim GM. Leonsis and Patrick praised MacLellan for his shrewdness, but he was still part of the previous regime, with blame and commendation to go around. MacLellan himself insisted he had “a lot of say” in McPhee’s moves.
With big, experienced names like Ray Shero available, the Caps seemed quick to go with their own guy, just weeks after admitting the current way was no longer acceptable. Those disparate views are hard to square, but Leonsis — calling the moves a “refresh” rather than a “rebuild” — defended the decision in his opening remarks, anticipating the question.
“I’ll tell you that when we started the process that was not the intention in any way,” the owner said. “We said we would be open minded and go talk to as many candidates as we could, which we did.”
“He led off with some of the the things I have to do to be a better owner,” Leonsis said of MacLellan’s interview, praising his intellect and honesty throughout. “I thought that was very brave and very astute because you don’t want to hear things like that.”
In the end, Leonsis said, MacLellan was chosen purely because he was the best candidate. Patrick said around 15 people were interviewed in total.
MacLellan faces a big task going forward. Alex Ovechkin is getting older and, eventually, getting worse. The team has big money hooked up in guys like Brooks Laich. Meanwhile, Washington’s defense is in disarray. While the salary cap will be going up, the Caps are a long way away from being the team they were a few years ago. It’s now up to a first-time GM to fix that.
“I think we can get more out of this roster,” MacLellan said. “I think this coach is going to bring more out of the roster and then we’ll try to add from there.”
“I think I’m ready for it,” he concluded.