No one asked us (yet), so we're asking and answering the questions we're hoping are being asked of and answered by candidates to be the next Capitals general manager...
Give us the names of three good current coaches and three bad ones and tell me why each is in the category you put him in.
J.P.: The sustained success that Mike Babcock has been able to achieve is obviously impressive, and three Finals appearances in a six-year span with two different (albeit somewhat stacked) teams speaks for itself, even as that success becomes somewhat dated. The Wings have a system and a culture in place in which players can cycle in and out as a result of free agency, trade, injury, development, what have you and they hardly miss a beat... and it's largely taken for granted. They should be the envy of just about every team in the League.
The second name on my "good" list is Darryl Sutter, an old school guy who has managed to adjust remarkably well to the way the game is played today - just take a look at L.A.'s possession stats over the last three seasons. Sutter understands the importance of neutral zone play, limiting shot volume against, and owning the puck and how that all adds up to wins, and here's an example to hammer home that point: both Sutter's Jonathan Quick and the Caps' Braden Holtby had .915 save percentages in similar total minutes this past regular season, but Quick's goals against average was a miserly 2.07 while Holtby's was an unsightly 2.85. Why was Holtby's nearly 40% higher? In large part because the Kings had the puck and the Caps didn't. Sutter has puck possession down pat, and it's no coincidence that, as a result, his Kings are playing in a third-straight Conference Finals as we speak.
The last name I'll throw out there is Jon Cooper. He's only had one season behind an NHL bench, but was able to keep Tampa's ship afloat despite that gruesome injury to the team's best player, the trade request of a franchise legend and a questionable-at-best core of defensemen. The Bolts were a quick out in the playoffs, but just about any team that loses a Vezina-caliber goalie is going to struggle in the second season (as Montreal is now). Cooper has won everywhere he's been, and is forward-thinking in a way that brings an element of freshness to the rink and inspires his players. Any team that passed on hiring him before Steve Yzerman was able to should be kicking itself now. (Did it just get noticeably warmer in here, or is it me?)
So there are three names that represent ideas and attributes that are critically important to the success of any franchise going forward - culture, systems, puck possession, adaptability and so on, and, most importantly of all: winning.
As for three bad coaches, what looks like bad coaching is often about a talent deficit on the roster and/or bad luck and truly bad coaches get weeded out and fired pretty quickly; flip the attributes I just mentioned and you'd get many of the characteristics of a "bad" coach. So there's no real need to name names... but Randy Carlyle, am I right?
Tell us about your draft and development philosophy
D'oh: I think I can sum it up in five words: don't overthink it; be patient.
When it comes to drafting, I don't overthink things - I want to take the best player available, particularly in the first three rounds. In later rounds, I might pick some guys that I think would fit into our organization and system, but in the early rounds I want brains, skill, and speed regardless of the position. In the first three rounds in particular, I want guys that look like top-6 scoring forwards and top-4 puck-moving defensemen. I can find grinders in free agency, trades, or the waiver wire, but skill players are rare and costly.
To identify the "best player available," I'd tend to put more emphasis on demonstrated production than on scouts' projections or hunches, particularly if that production occurs against strong competition. To that end, we'd probably take relatively fewer picks from the U.S. high school ranks, for example, and perhaps more from the elite European leagues. International tournaments and playoff performances would be weighted higher than inflated stats against lesser opponents. I don't care as much if a guy's lighting it up against 16-year olds, but if he can do that against elite kids his age, or against men, that's another story.
The old saying was, "you can't teach size." I prefer, "you can't teach speed and smarts." The guys who stand out in the NHL - Crosby, Doughty, Toews, Kane, Datsyuk - can all skate and think the game. Therefore I'd shy away from drafting based on size or "projectability." All too often those players turn into projects, and by the time they've grown into their frames and are worth a damn at the NHL level, they're restricted free agents. While I'd be willing to draft physical power forwards and bruising defensemen, if a player's number one attribute is a "mean streak," and/or his best statistic is PIMs, I'd pass. Those players are available as bargain-basement free agents every offseason. Likewise, I'd tend to avoid drafting defense-first forwards until the later rounds, if at all. If offensive prospects are fast and smart enough, you can usually teach them defense.
In terms of positions, I'd always prefer centers or defensemen to wings. You can never have too many good centers or defensemen, especially since centers can play wing, but the reverse doesn't usually work out. Therefore, a winger would really have to be a standout talent to edge out a center in our draft rankings. When it comes to drafting goaltenders, I wouldn't change a thing this organization is doing.
As far as development goes, I preach patience. There's very little downside to leaving a player in a league that he might have outgrown, while there's a ton of risk in throwing a kid into a situation for which he's not ready, either physically or emotionally (or both). You want to challenge young players, not break them. I want our prospects to have the opportunity to be leaders on their teams, and I want them playing big minutes in all sorts of situations. Bringing a young kid up to the AHL or NHL to have them play five minutes a night doesn't help the team and it doesn't help the player.
From an organizational perspective, the only way to build a deep, skilled team under the salary cap is to have an abundance of young talent on entry-level contracts. Patience can allow me to maximize the return on these ELCs. I don't want to burn a contract year to have a kid playing 10-12 minutes a night for 25 games; I'd rather roll that year over until he's really ready to contribute.
With patience must come ruthlessness. It's tempting to become invested in "your" kids and hold onto them past their sell-by date. I'd be in constant contact with our minor-league affiliates and our prospects' junior or college coaches to assess their progression. If I think a guy is having an unsustainable hot streak, or if he does something to elevate his profile beyond his talent level, I'd think about selling high to acquire other assets.
How much are you willing to pay for goaltending?
Rob: In general, I'd like to keep goaltender spending under 10% of the total cap for both goalies combined. There is tremendous goaltending depth in the league right now, and a high level of uncertainty with the position. The difference great goaltending gives you over average goaltending in the regular season is not nothing, but if you need great goaltending just to make the playoffs you probably aren't good enough to win the Cup. It's better to have a great team in front of an average goalie than an average team in front of a great goalie - build a team that can win in front of average goaltending, and just make sure you have an average goalie that can give you reliable playoff minutes.
Further, the quantifiable difference between great goaltending and average goaltending over a seven-game series is very small. Granted, small differences decide seven-game series all the time, but such small samples are highly impacted by randomness and luck. It's virtually impossible to predict which goalies will have the best playoff years, so the key is to have a reliable starter with a solid team in front of him. If he gets hot, great, but at least he should keep you in games. The rest is up to the skaters.
In order to keep costs of goaltending low, you need to bring in a steady stream of goalies via the draft, and have a great goaltending development program in place (including goalie coach and support in the AHL). I'd prefer to draft one goalie per year in the mid rounds (4-6) and let them develop at their pace over time. If one in five mid-round goalies can pan out for you, you'll have a young, cost-controlled, homegrown goalie available at all times. And when guys don't develop as hoped, there's usually a decent crop of veterans on the market that shouldn't cost too much money - take the fact that Jaroslav Halak just signed for 6.4% of a $70M cap, and several other former starters are available this summer from Ryan Miller to Jonas Hiller on down.
Between cost-effective options on the open market and bringing in a constant flow of young goalies via the draft, teams can keep their goaltending cost significantly below 10% of the cap, providing an area of the roster where performance is greater than cap commitment. These areas of high production-to-cap-hit are crucial for teams that want to compete for Cups. Just look at the Caps' experience with Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby. Three young guys, all on affordable contracts, all of whom have provided the starting goaltending for every Caps' playoff series since the departure of Cristobal Huet in 2008. When needed, the team brought in Jose Theodore and Tomas Vokoun, but both were on cheap contracts (certainly relative to their talent/production), allowing the Caps to save money and allocate more resources to other positions.
The one exception I'd make is for the truly elite goalie. The generational goalie. Not very good goalies. Not great goalies. The goalies that will stand out for an era 20 years later. If one of your young goalies turns out to be a guy that demonstrates a consistent ability to bring his "A" game in the playoffs, then you sign that guy and keep him around as long as you can afford him. Right now the only goalies I have in that class are Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick. Tuuka Rask is on the cusp, as are potentially one or two other goalies. This standard is incredibly strict and essentially boils down to goalies that show a consistent ability to steal playoff games/series. There will be no Cam Ward contracts on these books.
Tell us what your thoughts are on retaining restricted free agents; i.e., how do you feel about "bridge" contracts or buying out UFA years?
D'oh: Every situation is unique, but I think some general principles apply when it comes to RFA contracts. First, and most obviously, it depends on the player. Is this guy a part of your core? Is his talent level or skill-set available on the trade or UFA market? Does he have a personality that needs the motivation of contract years? If he's really part of the core, not easily replaced, and he doesn't need the kick in the pants that comes from having to play for his contract, then I'd consider a longer deal that buys out a handful of UFA years.
The next consideration is obviously the salary cap situation. If you have plenty of room, or if you can make it work, then a longer term might help save some money in the out years. If there's no way to fit him in over the short term, however, a bridge contract might be necessary, but you'll have to pay for it later.
Finally, you need to assess where you are as a team and be honest with yourself. Are you struggling to make the playoffs? Are you a few pieces from true contention? Or are you a perennial Cup contender? If you're struggling to make the playoffs, then hopefully the roster is well under the salary cap, so the longer-term contract makes sense. You take an up-front hit while your team is weak to save money in the future when, hopefully, the team is contending. If you're a few pieces away, then it's a grey area, and it really comes back to the player, the cap situation, and the other holes you need to fill in your roster. If you're a perennial Cup contender, you're likely up against the cap, so buying out UFA years may not make as much sense. In that case, a bridge contract might help keep your overall cap situation more manageable.
What's your philosophy when it comes to free agents?
D'oh: Free agency is a valuable tool for talent acquisition, but one that must be used sparingly and carefully. For the most part, I believe that if you're trying to acquire a "core piece" through free agency, then your foundation is probably unsound. There are always exceptions - Zdeno Chara and Ryan Suter spring to mind - but I think that building through free agency is generally a flawed strategy.
In my mind, free agents should generally be used to fill specific roles and bring new perspectives to a team. With a young squad, for example, a veteran presence with playoff or Stanley Cup experience is always valuable. Some skills, such as faceoffs or penalty killing, are also usually available at reasonable prices on the free-agent market.
The only time I might be willing to go for a large unrestricted free agent (UFA) contract is in the event that an elite defenseman or center is available, and even then, I'd probably be very wary of the center. The reason I'm more willing to pay for an elite UFA defenseman has to do with their aging curve. Most UFAs are in their late 20s to early 30s. That's a point when forwards tend to see a pretty steep decline in production, but defensemen don't usually see that drop-off until much later in their 30s - barring injury of course. If you look back at the top-tier defensemen of the last few decades, many of them were productive well into their late 30s and even 40s: Nick Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Chara, Rob Blake, Ray Bourque, Sergei Zubov, Kimmo Timonen, Andrei Markov, etc. It's a safer bet, generally.
How would you ideally apportion your money by position, and then how would you do it if you had $9.5m committed to a single wing?
Rob: I don't subscribe to the practice of setting strict sub-caps on what you will not spend on a position or role. You have to get as much value out of your contracts as you can, wherever that value comes from. Center and defense is the traditional route to winning, and when you look at the teams that will be competing with the Caps in the playoffs, there is a lot of center depth and some outstanding defensemen across the board. That's where you start, but do you think that Chicago is torn up about having one center (Toews) in their top ten cap hits? They have great wings and it is a part of their strength. They identified the strength of their team and have built around it.
The key is to acquire high-value players and sign contract terms that are, if not always favorable, manageable. Teams that are contenders every year (LA, Chicago, Boston) are built with substantial pieces through the draft, trade, and free agency. Teams have to be able to identify valuable players in all the manners if they are going to be competitive over the long term, but teams cannot control what becomes available. Getting hung up on what percentage of the cap a certain position or role takes up would cause teams to miss opportunities for valuable contracts. If Chicago passed up on Hossa because he's a wing, they wouldn't be as good. If LA passed up on Richards or Carter because they already had money committed to their centers, they would not be as good. Boston brought back two wings (Reilly Smith and Loui Ericsson) when they traded Tyler Seguin. Boston and Chicago would not have key pieces of their team if they followed strict guidelines about where they spend their money.
Finally, the last reason I dislike hard sub-caps within a team structure is because you never know where your valuable contracts will be, and that changes the picture. If a team has a lot of young contributors on ELC or RFA contracts in one position (e.g. center), that position will take up a lower percentage of the salary cap hit than your prescribed sub-cap percentage would indicate, but that is not a sign that the team is not properly addressing that position. In fact, if a team continuously makes center a focus of their draft, they should have a conveyor belt of cheap centers that can fill in as older players get more expensive. These cheaper contracts should free a team up to spend more money on other positions.
Conversely, if there is a position that a team has not drafted and developed well, they will have to address that position in free agency or trade, which almost surely precludes the possibility of a high value contract (certainly I'd say free agency does, especially now that the Hossa style contracts have been abolished). A GM that has a strict sub-cap for positions would be forced to choose between not addressing the position of need, or paying more money on the position than they'd otherwise want to. My preference is to address the need and make the team better rather than ignore the roster hole because of a philosophical approach.
Should we trade Ovechkin? How would you go about doing that?
J.P.: Hire me and I'll tell you.