From Alzner to Wilson, we're taking a look at and grading the 2014-15 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2015-16. Now that we've covered the players and the coach, it's time to wrap things up with the guy at the top, Brian MacLellan.
[Since a general manager's season is hard to quantify beyond a team's regular season numbers and projections about prospects and draft choices, we figured we'd have a roundtable discussion on what MacLellan did well and what he may not have done so well. Feel free to weigh in on any of these points in the comments.]
Q1: As an inside hire, there were questions about MacLellan's ability to distance himself from George McPhee and put his own stamp on the team. How successful do you think he was at doing so in his first season?
Rob: Considering MacLellan signed two high-profile, veteran free agent defensemen virtually right out of the gate, I'd say he did a pretty good job distancing himself from McPhee. It's hard to say how much MacLellan's vision differs from McPhee's, especially among the forward ranks, because so much of the personnel this year has carried over from the McPhee years and there is certainly a lot of organizational momentum that would need to be broken. But McPhee didn't make those kind of splash moves very often in early July, so there is at least some good reason to think MacLellan will differ from McPhee in a meaningful way. I've advocated for a more aggressive "win now and figure out the rest later" approach for several years, and Brian MacLellan may just be bringing that to the table.
Adam: MacLellan made a splash on the first day of free agency but more impressive than that was how he pursued Evander Kane during the season. MacLellan appears to like going after the right guys even if their cost may be a bit higher than warranted. At this point in time MacLellan seems to be a much more aggressive General Manager than his predecessor and he is well on his way to putting his own stamp on the team.
The Peerless: Overall? To a point, but not a complete overhaul. But that might be a bit of an unfair question. There was the David Poile-like "big splash" early in his tenure in signing free agent defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, but those are the kinds of deals that might not require as much infrastructure and organizational planning as other aspects of personnel management. The hire of Barry Trotz might have been more a case of organizational fatigue in hiring head coaches in their first NHL posting, and Trotz was not an outside-the-box sort of hire.
There are two aspects of personnel management that still struck me as being firmly in the McPhee school of management - the draft and the trading deadline. In the draft, McPhee's tendency was to go squarely for skilled forwards in the first round (Marcus Johansson in 2009, Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2010, Filip Forsberg in 2012, Andre Burakovsky in 2013). MacLellan took Jakub Vrana with his first first-round pick as Caps GM. He even went so far as to take a goalie (Vitek Vanacek), an echo of McPhee's tendency to take a goalie in just about every draft. This might reflect more the Ross Mahoney holdover than any particular stamp MacLellan put on the draft.
At the trading deadline, the Caps - as McPhee seemed to do often - went for role players or players who might be past their shelf life. In this instance a forward with a two-way game and occasional punch (Curtis Glencross) and a physical, third pair defenseman (Tim Gleason). Unfortunately for the Caps, there was mixed success, as there was in such instances under McPhee. And there was little success in the post season, as there was often in these instances under McPhee.
J.P.: As Rob said, Mac did something his predecessor never did - fixed the blueline. We identified that as his biggest challenge when he took over the job, and he unquestionably succeeded there, icing the best Caps defense in a generation and doing it without completely sacrificing offense to do it. Of course, Barry Trotz deserves credit there as well... but that's another area in which MacLellan distanced himself from McPhee - in hiring an NHL-experienced bench boss (yes, the timing of the hires might have coincided, but don't think for a second that MacLellan didn't hire Trotz). And by virtue of those two moves, MacLellan distanced himself from McPhee in a third way - he established a new culture in the organization.
Peerless is right about the deadline acquisitions and of course the end result of the season, but enough has happened over the last year to ally fears that it would be a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" situation.
Q2: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing MacLellan this summer?
J.P.: Continuing to build the team he and Barry Trotz envision while being sure they're on the same page and that that vision is one that can win. Take Mike Green for example. Green clearly wouldn't be utilized by Trotz in a way that would justify what he can get in free agency (no team can pay a third-pairing defenseman upwards of $6 million), so there's no fit there. So Mac and Trotz seem fine walking away from a terrific right-handed puck-moving defenseman - a rarity in this day and age - and going a different route. Good enough, but trade in too many Greens for Orpiks and you're not going to be winning much of anything. While the team is clearly identifying itself as playing "heavy hockey," they still have a good amount of... light skill. Shift the balance too much towards the former and the results may not be there.
Adam: I think the biggest challenge for MacLellan is working around the team's worst contracts to construct the depth chart that he and his coach desire. The Capitals don't have the cap space to go on a spending spree like they did last year and even if they did there aren't many top tier free agents this time around. The trade market is likely where MacLellan will have to look to bring in players that he feels will improve his roster and even then the Caps' salary cap issues make trades difficult. MacLellan's challenge will be to identify where the team can improve the most without having a huge swing in AAV paid for that position and that might not be on the top line.
Rob: Obviously there are some very important restricted free agents that need to be signed, but in this era NHL teams almost always keep their RFAs. The cap hit is yet to be determined, but I don't think any of the important RFAs (Holtby, Kuznetsov, Johansson) are going to be going anywhere. So, given that,
Joel Ward is nice, but he's not a first line wing. Jason Chimera on the second wing goes almost as far in explaining the lack of secondary scoring as does Henrik Lundqvist. MacLellan has talked about adding a top line right wing, but how does a player like that even fit into the salary structure? Brooks Laich is playing on the fourth line while costing almost as much as the entire second line; that is not tenable, but the contract is not movable.
For the Caps to take the step forward they need to realistically compete for an Eastern Conference title, they'll certainly need some huge steps forward from the young forwards (Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Wilson), and they'll also need some deft work on the salary structure of the forward corps from Brian MacLellan.
The Peerless: Arithmetic. He has the Middle Aged Guns (Ovechkin and Backstrom) under contract for the next several years. But the next wave is due for new deals - Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby being restricted free agents. From the looks of things, MacLellan has 14 roster players from this season under contract for next with a cap hit of just over $50 million. If next year's cap is $71 million, he has to fit 7-9 contracts and raises for his RFA's into a $20 million or so space. I suspect the club might try to sell togetherness and their being closer to a championship than they have been in some time to get discounts on new deals, and that will test his negotiating mettle.
Q3: Overall, how would you grade Brian MacLellan's rookie season as the Caps' GM?
Rob: I think I'd give him an A-. He identified the weakness he wanted to address, the defense, and he aggressively pursued solutions. As much heat as he took for the Orpik contract, it's pretty clear the team is better with Orpik and if we're going to consider heaping praise on Trotz for a culture change then we have to at least consider that Orpik could have been part of that culture change. MacLellan felt that the team had the second line center of the future so he didn't want to go out and pay market value for a guy who had already given up his best years. Kuznetsov validated that confidence (and Burakovsky may have as well, given a longer look as a center).
My main complaint with MacLellan is the Glencross trade. It may be unfair because at the time I supported it as a nice depth move to help add a playoff-type player to the forwards, but after a hot start with the team Glencross was a non-factor, at best. He ended his season, and I'm sure his time with the Caps, playing on the fourth line (making egregious turnovers in overtime in the process), and MacLellan gave up two relatively valuable draft picks in a deep draft for the privilege.
Adam: A-, the Capitals free agent signings played better than expected and the team wasn't overly damaged at the trade deadline. The Glencross trade was a mistake but you can't win them all.
The Peerless: I would give him a fairly solid "B+." The draft results were predictable (and I suspect will look down the road like McPhee's in that the skaters taken after Vrana have iffy probabilities of being regular NHLers). The free agency signings were aggressive moves to address specific needs, and I give him higher marks for that, even with the difficulties the last years of the Orpik deal could present.
Absent those signings, I think it would have been questionable that the Caps make the playoffs, having only five more points than ninth-place Boston. The trading deadline moves looked a lot (perhaps too much) like McPhee, but then again, trading deadline deals seem more media creations that they are meaningful roster management tools. How often do they make that much of a difference? I hesitated to give him a higher grade because I think the year to come is going to be a clearer indication of the stamp he wants to put on the team, and I'll be interested to see just how he goes about it.
J.P.: A-. He fixed the defense, found his second-line center (we think), and has the right coaches and the right culture in place.