Now that we’ve wrapped up the players, it’s time to turn our attention to the big man himself, the architect of the 2019-20 Washington Capitals... GM Brian MacLellan.
Q1: What do you think was Brian MacLellan’s best move - or perhaps the best move he didn’t make - last season?
Luke: I don’t think MacLellan did anything so great that really sticks out, but that’s not a bad thing. To be a good GM sometimes it’s more about just not making any bad decisions and MacLellan didn’t make any bad decisions this past season. As for my personal favorite move (and this will make people roll their eyes and want to yell ‘shut up’) is moving Christian Djoos for Daniel Sprong. If you know me, you know I have a thing for Sprong, I think he’ll be a huge asset to the Capitals and will turn a lot of heads. I loved him since his draft year so getting him as he’s about to hit his prime is exciting. Djoos was great as well but he barely priced himself out of a starting lineup so it was a good trade for both sides.
J.P.: Does firing Todd Reirden count? Because that’s it - cutting bait on a guy that was “his guy” couldn’t have been easy, but it was clearly the right move. Otherwise, sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make. Not sure if there were any of those this time around, though (unless we want to include “not signing Braden Holtby to a contract extension”), so we’re left with the roster moves Mac did make. The Niskanen-Gudas trade saved them some cap space (but Gudas was probably a little disappointing, even with reasonably low expectations), and drafting McMichael and Protas look like strong picks.
But there were a bunch of moves that didn’t quite work out - the Burakovsky and Stephenson trades haven’t looked great (albeit those guys wouldn’t have gotten the same opportunities here that they got and flourished in with their new teams), grabbing Panik off the scrap heap yielded mixed results (and the bottom six wasn’t as good as they probably thought it was), the Dillon trade was decent and the Kovalchuk trade didn’t pay off at all. Heck, I’m not sure that Nick Backstrom extension is going to look all that good sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, it was a pretty “medium” year for Mac, which is understandable, given the strangeness around it and the situation behind the bench - no huge swings, no huge misses. Hopefully we can look back on this period and answer “hiring Peter Laviolette” as Mac’s best move, but for now I’ll just go with shit-canning Brenden Leipsic.
Alex: Like Luke and J.P. said, MacLellan didn’t do anything amazingly good or glaringly bad this past season, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I agree with J.P. in that firing Todd Reirden was one of GMBM’s best moves of the season, especially because it was probably a very difficult decision. I’m also going to throw another move out there that I know not everyone will agree with me on, but if you know me then you won’t be surprised: getting Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline. Going into the deadline, I knew Dillon was likely leaving San Jose but had convinced myself there was no way the Capitals would make a move for him, so I was pretty excited when the trade news broke. I’ve been a fan of his for a bit, and I really think he was a perfect fit for the Caps in every way imaginable. If it can be done in a team-friendly way (and I think it can) the Capitals should absolutely prioritize resigning him this offseason, because I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential of Dillon’s impact on the team.
The Peerless: I agree with J.P. on this one regarding firing Todd Reirden. There is always a tension with respect to coaches between hanging on too long and cutting ties too soon. And the frequent turnover of coaches in the NHL just heightens that tension. But MacLellan has built a club for which gaudy regular season numbers mean little. So, having the third-best regular season record over the two-year Reirden reign (88-46-16/194 points, trailing only Tampa Bay and Boston) doesn’t earn a lot of goodwill. The two early exits against lower-seeded teams in the postseason made a change at the top necessary, given the urgency of a closing window of competitiveness on the roster. It was the move he had to make.
By the same token, the best move he didn’t make was succumbing to any late season pressure to relive Reirden. There is something to be said for letting a player or a coach work things out in their environment and not panicking in the face of adversity. MacLellan was right to let the season play out, to give Reirden a chance to solve the late-season problems the Caps had. When things did not work out (23rd in points percentage after the All-Star Game, first round playoff exit), he had as much information he needed.
Geoff: The Brenden Dillon trade was a win for MacLellan. In exchange for two draft picks the 29 year old was brought across the country to improve Washington’s defense by alleviating pressure on others to play above their heads. And Dillon did just that - averaging more than 22 minutes a night against the Islanders. Even though the Capitals were unable to achieve postseason success MacLellan validated Dillon’s worth as a valuable minute muncher and now has the first chance at resigning the defenseman this offseason.
Q2: What do you think the biggest priority should be for MacLellan this offseason?
Luke: MacLellan’s biggest priority this offseason is to get Jakub Vrana under contract. Vrana still has one more year on his contract but there’s a very good chance he could up his price with a great season. Unfortunately (and fortunately), Vrana had a very poor playoffs, his value is probably very low right now so MacLellan should try to get him extended to a long term contract now. The cap is up in the air for the foreseeable future, so saving money anywhere possible should be MacLellan’s focus when thinking about the future. Signing Vrana now can be the difference between save $1M-$2M.
J.P.: I like Luke’s answer (and there’s that other big contract extension looming… you know, the one for the greatest players in franchise history). But the biggest priority for Mac in the offseason is making sure that he and Laviolette are on the same page in terms of roster construction and that he’s given his new head coach everything the latter needs in order to implement the systems and styles he envisions this team executing. The Caps have gone all-in on their head coach, with a roster whose window is closing, so it’s critically important that Laviolette be enabled to do what he wants to do. Does that mean another puck-mover on the back-end? Another middle-six forward with more speed than grit? A veteran back-up goalie in case the future isn’t quite yet for “the goalie of the future”? Who knows. But the Caps have hired a top chef - nothing’s more important than making sure he has the right ingredients to cook the meal they all want to eat.
Alex: I agree with J.P. on this one - MacLellan has to make sure he and Laviolette agree on the direction in which the roster needs to move. In order to ensure the highest possible level of success for Laviolette, GMBM has to give him the best possible roster to work with. This is, therefore, going to impact the players the Caps will and will not resign. Ilya Kovalchuk, Brenden Dillon, and Radko Gudas are all UFAs, and Travis Boyd and Jonas Siegenthaler just hit RFA status. There are also several Hershey guys who need new contracts: forwards Liam O’Brien and Shane Gersich and defensemen Kris Bindulis, Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, Tyler Lewington, and Colby Williams. Obviously the Caps can’t bring all of them back and shop the free agent market like they need to, so it is critical that GMBM and Laviolette are constantly communicating about these decisions. For example, having Laviolette’s input when organizing Washington’s somewhat crowded blueline will be imperative; those choices need to revolve around what kind of system he wants to bring to D.C. If GM and coach aren’t on the same page, then this big-time coaching hire is going to tank, and fast.
The Peerless: There are the usual player issues – the Caps need a stronger third pair, they need a bottom six that will actually contribute in the postseason (as they did in the 2018 Stanley Cup run), but I think there is a behind-the-scenes issue that could (perhaps should) occupy a lot of time and effort in the front office in this offseason, if it hasn’t already been high on the list of priorities. That is planning for the transition out of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era to minimize what could be a significant deterioration of the Caps on-ice product. In 2021, the Caps have five draft picks in seven rounds (they do not have a third-round and do not have one of their two fifth-round picks). They have solid slates of picks in each of the 2022 and 2023 drafts. Can they increase the number of picks they have to re-stock what is a weak farm system? Are there young players from other clubs on their radar? Are there nuggets available by other means (e.g., undrafted free agents) that could bolster the farm system and re-stock the player pipeline? The Detroit Red Wings were the gold standard of the NHL over a 25-year period ending in 2015-2016, reaching the postseason in all 25 seasons, going to the Stanley Cup final five times, and winning the Cup four times. But since that run, they have the worst aggregate record in the league (112-164-41). A salary capped league makes cycles of success and struggle almost inevitable, but the depths of failure are issues to be managed by the managers. This is going to be an ongoing priority with this team in parallel with how they manage the roster to remain competitive in the next few, perhaps final years of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era.
Geoff: MacLellan needs to start planning for how this roster looks after resigning Ovechkin to whatever dollar amount is necessary. When MacLellan and Ovechkin put pen to paper the former will need to ensure the team remains competitive through the Captain’s late 30’s while balancing the budget. Nothing is more important than keeping this team competitive and resigning Ovechkin to his worth will make that task much more difficult. GMBM needs to start planning for that now.
Q3: How would you grade MacLellan’s overall moves in 2019-20?
Luke: I would grade MacLellan’s overall move this past season as a B. Nothing great, nothing terrible. You could certainly argue that Nicklas Backstrom’s will not live up to his new contract but there was simply no way any GM ever would let Backstrom walk so MacLellan was cornered there. This also applies to whatever Alexander Ovechkin’s new contract will be.
J.P.: Like Luke said, and as I said above, it was a relatively uneventful and unimpactful year for the Caps, roster-wise, at least, and understandably so. The Caps are almost at a transition period in the roster and they’re going to have to decide how many chips to put into the pot in the next year or so versus folding and playing for the future. I suspect that the next two years will be a lot more interesting, from a roster standpoint, and give us a lot more grist for the mill. For now, I’ll look back on the crazy season that’s just past and give Mac a B-minus for his work and hope that the biggest issue with this team wasn’t and isn’t the roster, but the coaching.
Alex: Before August 23rd, I think I would have given MacLellan an average B for the season. Like we’ve all said, nothing great and nothing terrible. However, I feel inclined to bump his grade up to a B+ after firing Reirden and bringing in Laviolette. Parting ways with Reirden was by no means an easy decision for the organization, no matter how glaringly obvious it seemed to fans, but it was the right one. To then bring in Laviolette to fill Reirden’s spot was, I think, the perfect move. Of course, only time will tell if that’s really true, but right now it makes GMBM look pretty good.
The Peerless: What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Does Todd Reirden get graded on his postseason record more than his regular season record? Then the same applies, albeit in a slightly different way, to Brian MacLellan. The difference is that MacLellan has a longer record, one that has been more successful on balance (a Stanley Cup does carry a measure of tolerance). But in that respect, his moves in 2019-2020 did not have the desired effect (I do not count hiring Peter Laviolette as a “this season” move; we’ll grade that next season). I would grade his year at a B-minus.
Geoff: Identified and improved the defense before a (disappointing) playoff run. Brought in Ilya Kovalchuk to support the offense in exchange for a third round draft pick. Swapped a young defenseman (Christian Djoos) for a young forward (Daniel Sprong). Quickly cleared out a disappointing coaching staff at season’s end. He gets a B+.