WASHINGTON – Here’s an audacious way to get a promotion: Tell the big boss what he’s been doing wrong.
Brian MacLellan did just that when he interviewed with owner Ted Leonsis for the Washington Capitals general manager job.
“He led off with some of the things that I have to do to be a better owner,” Leonsis said. “I thought that was very brave and very astute, because you don’t want to hear things like that.”
MacLellan’s strategy helped him pull an upset. Leonsis was looking for a new direction and hadn’t intended to promote from within after George McPhee’s contract wasn’t renewed, but MacLellan’s candour helped him rise above the 15 or so candidates and land the job.
“I didn’t think I had anything to lose,” MacLellan said.
MacLellan has been with Washington for 13 seasons, including seven as assistant GM, but most of his work had been in scouting and he had rarely spoken to Leonsis. His message: When everyone in the organization is not on the same page, including the owner, the product on the ice suffers.
Such was the case last season with McPhee and coach Adam Oates, and the result was a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years despite 51 goals from Alex Ovechkin.
“I think the important point I was trying to make is that I think the team feels when there’s a disconnect,” MacLellan said, “or (when) there’s not a unified philosophy from ownership to manger to coach.”
MacLellan was introduced alongside Barry Trotz, the longtime Nashville Predators coach who replaces Oates. While MacLellan was one of many GM candidates, Trotz was the only coach the Capitals interviewed. His only hang-up was that he had to wait for a GM to get in place, and to make sure it was someone who shared a similar vision.
“It’s where I started,” said Trotz, who coached the Capitals’ top minor league affiliate in the 1990s before spending 15 seasons with the Predators, “so I feels like I was coming home.”
Leonsis said he was keen to get someone with a solid track record after five consecutive McPhee hires who had no previous NHL head coaching experience.
“We are not rebuilding the team,” Leonsis said. “But we are going to refresh the team.”
Ovechkin has been forced to adjust to multiple offensive systems through several coaching changes in recent years. One of Trotz’s priorities will be to sit down with the three-time league MVP and discuss the way forward.
“My job as a coach is to find a way to allow Alex and the other players to reach their potential as a group, and be able to play together,” Trotz said. “One of the very fundamental things, if you have a kindergarten, they give you your report card and they say, ‘Do you play well with others?’ My job is to get everybody to play well with the others.”
Trotz downplayed his reputation as a defensive-minded coach, saying he didn’t have the same firepower in Nashville that he’ll have in Washington.
“I don’t want to take anything away from the Capitals offensively. … (They have) great power plays and great individuals that can put the puck in the net,” Trotz said. “I didn’t have that in Nashville. I had some real good players, but not enough up front, so we become a little more of a defensive team.”
Trotz said he doesn’t see why the Capitals can’t get back in the Stanley Cup mix right away, assuming they can forge the unified gameplan envisioned by MacLellan.
“There’s enough ability here,” Trotz said. “We just have to forge a little bit of an identity going forward.”
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