Rink Roundtable: On Brian MacLellan

Patrick Smith

Weighing in on the new man in charge, Caps' GM Brian MacLellan

Q1: First up, the question everyone is asking - is promoting assistant GM Brian MacLellan to GM enough of a change at the top to revive the Caps?

D'ohboy: Yes, and for several reasons. First, just because he was a subordinate to George McPhee doesn't mean he agreed with everything that McPhee did; he won't necessarily pursue the same strategies or make the same decisions. It's very possible that he's been observing the organization for the last ten years and cataloging the ways in which he'd do things differently. Second, the evidence suggests that MacLellan wasn't an integral part of the Caps' day-to-day decision-making process. He lived in Minnesota or traveled most of the year. Ted said that he'd literally never heard MacLellan speak before, so at least he's a fresh voice.

Third, he's an assistant GM, rather than a retread like Ray Shero or Craig Button. My suspicion is that long tenures under the grind of being a general manager would tend to enforce a degree of conformity over time--a sort of learned group-think, if you will. By hiring an assistant, it's possible that Ted and Dick were hoping to avoid that (although we've seen how that's turned out with coaches...).  My main concern with MacLellan is that, having established personal relationships with parts of the front office, he may be unwilling or unable to make difficult personnel decisions.

My suspicion is that long tenures under the grind of being a general manager would tend to enforce a degree of conformity over time

The Peerless: The most important hire in this off-season, in my opinion, is the one the Caps just made for that chair. But there is an entire infrastructure beneath him that bears watching. I have yet to see much comment from the organization that it has taken a magnifying glass to that to see what can be improved or what can be done to "revive" the Caps. Intuitively, if this is the only change to be made, I think you are assuming that the only thing keeping the Caps from realizing their potential, on and off the ice, was the singular incompetence of George McPhee. I might have had issues with McPhee, but I would not use the adjective "incompetent" to describe him.

In the end, this is not about Brian MacLellan, who might or might not be the best hire ever made for this franchise. It is about the folks who did the hiring and the process involved, including whatever comprehensive examination they did of the entire organizational infrastructure during and after this season. In terms of answering the question, is MacLellan's promotion enough of a change at the top to revive the Caps, I am inclined to say "no." Even if his is the most important piece, and I think it is a far more important hire than the head coach, it is still one piece in an organization with a lot of moving parts that have been moving in these parts for some time.

Muneeb: I'll say yes - but I don't know whether he'll get the job done or not.

To consistently contend for a championship, you need to be "great." MacLellan right now has a lot of things that are "good," but not "great"-a good roster, a good prospect pool, and a good coach. The roster is probably just one or two solid players away from being "great," and quite a few people think the coach is "great," too. So I don't think the team is too far away from being title-caliber.

That said, margins are thin in this league. While even the worst GMs can make a good move every now and then -and I don't think MacLellan will be a bad GM after having served under a pretty decent one in McPhee for so long - even the best GMs occasionally make a bad move, and the Caps aren't deep enough as an organization to withstand a big mistake. Given the status of the organization and the ages of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, though, I expect we'll find out what sort of change MacLellan brings (if any) fairly quickly.

Even the best GMs occasionally make a bad move, and the Caps aren't deep enough as an organization to withstand a big mistake

Becca: I'm hopeful that it will be (as I'm sure we all are). I've admittedly been a big supporter of McPhee in the past, though, even with some missteps over the past season or two, so I wasn't of the mindset that this team needed an entirely clean slate from top to bottom. The Caps aren't yet at the point where everything needs to be blown up - the biggest change for now needed to be behind the bench, and they got that.

I like that there's some stability, or at least some semblance of it, within the organization; I'd echo D'oh's concern about being so close with a front office staff that might need some changes, but I also don't see this as GMGM 2.0. Obviously that's based almost entirely on what he's said to this point, and obviously we won't know until he starts making moves in an official capacity, but I don't think this move is as worthy of hand-wringing as a large portion of Caps' fans have made it out to be.

Kevin: The optimist in me (he who tends to show his smiling face between the months of May and September) wants to believe that the starkness of change isn't what matters so much as that there was any change at all. Sure, MacLellan operated under McPhee. But hey, there was a time when Saruman outranked Gandalf. And Severus Snape spent many years as a Death Eater, didn't he? And Darth Vader operated for many years under Emperor Palpatine's oppressive galactic designs...

So to reiterate a common sentiment from above, just because Brian MacLellan has had extensive exposure to the philosophies and practices of George McPhee does not mean that those philosophies and practices will continue to be employed. And even if he does apply those same principles, there's still the matter of the how as opposed to the what, which is to say that MacLellan could be better with the same hand of cards as McPhee ever was. But at this stage it's all hypothetical, and at this point change - regardless of the perception of the significance of that change was needed and received.

Q2: MacLellan has said a lot of things in his first few official days on the job. What one thing has stood out to you the most, be it as a reason for hope or a reason for concern?

J.P.: MacLellan did about as good a job as possible in his opening presser to distance himself from George McPhee and identify some of the team's big-picture issues, but those are all just words until they're more than that, so I'll hope for the best (while being aware of the worst). But one line stood out, and that was "data is as good as the analyst reading the data." It's a truism for NHL front offices and bloggers alike, and an obvious point that for some reason is often skipped past. Let's hope that MacLellan has good analysts and an effective way to turn their findings into action.

Muneeb: Two analytics-related comments stood out to me. One, Trotz discussed where shot-based metrics might fail, and instead of trotting out New Jersey, Los Angeles, or Boston as examples of teams that consistently skew the percentages, he had a very specific example of where the context of a situation within a game matters - specifically, that dump-ins may not be as bad when you've got the long line change, or are late in your shift. Hopefully that means he's actually thought through the shortcomings of analytics at a micro-level, which also means he'll understand when they'll be useful as a coach...because in the middle of a game, you can't always think "macro."

The second was by MacLellan, who said, "I think the game is a series of a bunch of probabilities. Every time someone touches the puck or makes a decision, there's probabilities involved."

For me, this was the most interesting analytics-related response from either Trotz or MacLellan, and I think is a good indicator MacLellan has a fundamentally different approach to analytics than, say, Dave Nonis, and more similar approach to those used by, for example, the teams in Chicago and St. Louis.

It reminded me of what the NBA's Toronto Raptors have been doing with the SportVU data. Although the NHL doesn't have SportVU just yet, the concept is the same - figure out what you or players should be doing based on probabilities, integrating as much information as possible into calculating those probabilities, and play the odds. If the outcome is the one that hurts you, well, sometimes that happens. There's no true zero-risk or zero-reward play. It's exactly the right mindset to have with statistics and analytics, which can only tell you what is likely to happen, not what will happen - especially in the NHL, where game outcomes are more random than in the NBA or NFL.

D'oh: I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to MacLellan when it comes to advanced statistics. I've been burned before by a new GM (Jack Zduriencik of the Mariners) who said all the right things about advanced stats to placate a part of his fanbase, before promptly going out and making decisions without any regard for advanced stats whatsoever.

The thing that gave me concern was his comment about conditioning and the desire to have a "hard" training camp. That smacks to me of an incredibly old-school approach in which the taskmaster coach busts the players' asses to get them in shape over the course of two weeks. If that's the case, his view of conditioning may be terribly outdated. Players should show up to camp in the best condition they'll be in all season, and spend the camp learning the new system. If they waste time doing bag skates (or if, God forbid, they need to do bag skates), then we're in trouble.

As far as a positive thing he's said, I like how he's said he'd be more patient with prospects. The McPhee regime gave lip service to not wanting to rush young players, then repeatedly rushed young players (Eminger, Alzner, Carlson, Johansson, Carrick, Orlov, Wilson, Holtby, Varlamov, Grubauer, etc.).

Becca: The biggest thing that stood out for me was his talk about a need to focus on developing their young players better. In a year filled with poor and often bizarre handling of personnel at all levels, the missteps taken with some of the prospects - most notably Connor Carrick - were among the most frustrating to watch. The Caps' defense had plenty of issues and holes, but to push a 19-year-old into a full-time NHL role, one for which he was clearly not ready, just seemed unconscionable. It's especially hard to fathom when the option existed to send him to the AHL, an option that was not available with other seemingly mishandled players like Tom Wilson. And then to not make him eligible to play for the Bears in the playoffs, had they made it...awful, from start to finish.

How much of that is on the coaching staff and how much is on the front office, I'm not sure, but the fact that MacLellan has directly addressed the need to have a better approach toward developing players gives me hope that he would step in and make sure that a) the decision lies with the front office and b) they would make the right decision.

Beyond that, the discussion of beefing up the pro scouting was one that drew my attention, both because it's an area in which the team has had issues in the past and because it used to be MacLellan's domain - is he noting that there were things he could have done better in that department, or is it the talk of an insider who saw first hand that the organization wasn't doing what it could have to give him the tools needed, and is finally in a position to change it? Perhaps a bit of both, but it'll be interesting to see what changes he makes there and what kind of results he'll get.

Kevin: I reckon that trying to deduce any sort of significance from the stream of cliches that comes during the pomp and pageantry of introducing a new regime is a fool's errand (speaking of cliches). The example that D'ohboy laid out in the space above is a perfect example of why. It's tempting to analyze words when they're the only things we've got, but free agency will be here before too long, and probably that's when my first real opinions of MacLellan will begin to take shape.

The Peerless: I don't attach a lot to comments made at a press conference or in press interviews. The good statements often strike me as rehearsed or practiced over time, and the gaffes are usually "in the moment" mistakes. And as for official press releases, those things are polished within an inch of their lives.

The comment that did stay with me was not uttered by MacLellan at the press conference, but rather about him (and I went back to the transcript of the press conference to make sure I heard it right), "Brian lived in Minnesota, so I had never really heard his voice." That is what Ted Leonsis said in opening his specific remarks about MacLellan.  It just struck me as odd on a couple of levels. First, the whole management-by-telework thing.  I get that these days folks don't have to be at a duty station to fulfill their duties; we have lots of tools for folks to do those jobs.  Still, he was the assistant general manager for player personnel, the number two guy in day-to-day management of the club. That aside, there was the whole "never heard his voice" thing.  Perhaps it was a figure of speech, but if it was literally true, I would have expected a deeper level of engagement by ownership with senior leadership of the club.

But having said that, I think any level of concern I might have about it is probably overblown. I'm going to be paying more attention to what happens over the next month. Will MacLellan make a splashy entrance, the way David Poile did when he made his big blockbuster trade 10 days after becoming GM, or is he going to be George McPhee 2.0, holding his cards after his hire until in-season before making any significant moves? That will say a lot more than sound bites in the media.

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