Photo credit: Chris Gordon
On a hot late spring day a little over a month ago, Brian MacLellan met the media for the first time as general manager of the Washington Capitals. The move to hire him was surprising, with MacLellan’s only executive experience coming under his recently fired boss George McPhee. But in his first press conference, MacLellan conveyed a more analytic tone than McPhee. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis praised MacLellan as someone who would “refresh” an organization with an already strong core.
Many fans feared MacLellan would be a continuation of McPhee, accepting the status quo and perpetually insisting the Capitals could paper over their flaws. Instead, he has transformed the team in one day, spending a stunning $67.5 million.
“I think we had some needs and we addressed them,” MacLellan told reporters. “We had cap room. Ownership gave the green light to get to the cap and we spent the money where we thought we needed to spend it the most.”
First, MacLellan signed defenseman Brooks Orpik, 33, to a 5-year, $27.5 million contract. The move was universally regarded as foolish. In a few hours, MacLellan became one of the most maligned people in a city full of hyperbole. Orpik is a decent player, but entering the latter part of his career. Better defensemen like Christian Ehrhoff and Anton Stralman were picked up by other teams for less money and fewer years. Nevertheless, the Capitals were committed to him.
“The total dollars were centered around Brooks,” MacLellan said. “We needed to get him in first because we thought that was our greatest need. We tried to get him to stay as low as possible. We struggled with that fifth year for a while, and then we ended up we felt we had to go there because it was getting so competitive.”
Shortly before 5 pm, though, MacLellan went all-in. The team announced that they had signed defenseman Matt Niskanen to a 7-year, $40 million contract, forgoing an opportunity to re-sign Mikhail Grabovski and committing almost $70 million and 12 years to two former Penguins.
“I spent a lot of time going to Dick and Ted’s office back and forth,” MacLellan said. “I know it’s a big commitment by ownership. I feel we’ve addressed areas that we need to address, mainly our five-on-five play.”
Interestingly, new assistant coach Todd Reirden seems to wield great influence in the Trotz/MacLellan regime. He coached both Niskanen and Orpik in Pittsburgh and convinced MacLellan that Orpik was a smart move. Almost all other observers, however, think this signing will prove to be a folly. Orpik’s possession numbers are pedestrian, but MacLellan shook that off.
“I don’t think we emphasize Corsi on him,” he said. “He gets put in defensive situations a lot. He starts in defense zone, he doesn’t get offense zone starts. I don’t view him as a guy that carries the puck a lot. He’s defensive defensemen. He’s a shot blocker, he’s strong in front of the net, he clears the crease. He does all those intangible things, plus the leadership side plus he makes the guy beside him a little better too.”
The Caps now have around one million in cap space left, with many holes to fill. With a lot of defenseman now on the roster, Mike Green and his $6 million cap hit could be on move. However, MacLellan dismissed that suggestion — at least for now.
“He’s a good player,” the GM said. “We’re hoping to get him back on track.”
“I like our defense,” MacLellan continued. “We have six really good defensemen. I think we have good balance now. I think we’re gonna let it play out and see how we’re doing.”
Terrible defense was Washington’s biggest hole (among many) last year. MacLellan just threw nearly $67.5 million at that problem. The Capitals will be a different team in the years to come, good or bad.