Ted Leonsis doesn't mess around.
On April 10, one day after the Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, the Capitals' owner wrote in his blog Ted's Take that "I want to conduct a comprehensive review of what transpired this year, listen to appropriate voices and then determine what steps are necessary."
Following through on his promise, Leonsis announced on April 26 the non-renewal of general manager George McPhee's contract along with the termination of head coach Adam Oates. In the team's official press release, Leonsis stated that "this is an important time for our organization, and I feel a change is needed in order to get us back to being a top echelon team that competes for the Stanley Cup."
Craig Custance of ESPN.com felt some sort of change was on the horizon as he provided his answer to a mailbag question on April 4 about Leonsis and the Capitals (subscription required):
...he has high expectations and expects this group to challenge for a Stanley Cup, a reasonable expectation considering that Washington regularly spends to the cap limit and was a team that once had as promising a young core of players as there was in hockey. So yeah, if this team falls short of the playoffs, it’s fair to expect changes.
Now, the decision to let McPhee walk was not a surprise, but the decision to fire Oates may have been. Custance certainly felt that way, in that same answer to the mailbag question:
There’s been plenty of speculation that McPhee will lose his job if the Capitals don’t make the playoffs, and there’s even a destination in which he’s rumored to land -- under Brian Burke in Calgary. If that happens, you have to give the new GM the option to bring in his own coach, although if he’s smart, the new GM will keep Oates so that he still has that option down the road later in his tenure. It also allows some continuity in Washington, which would be a good thing.
However, if Custance had read Leonsis' 10-point rebuilding plan as told to SB Nation: Hogs Haven on Feb. 26, 2009, he would have seen both of these moves coming.
In the first point of his rebuilding plan, Leonsis discussed his feelings about the general manager:
Always run away from experts that say, 'We are just one player away.' Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--'trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan.'
As I mentioned in my March 19 column about why missing the playoffs would be good for the Capitals, McPhee increasingly proved to be this type of "expert," acting as if the team was "just one player away."
As far as the relationship between the general manager and the head coach, Leonsis stated in the sixth point of his rebuilding plan that one must "make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes."
So, despite Custance's prediction, it now makes prefect sense why Leonsis would opt to replace both the team's general manager and the head coach at the same time. The best way to ensure that the new general manager and the new head coach are on the same page is for the former to hire the latter.
By vacating both positions at the same time, Leonsis is keeping the Washington Capitals' Stanley Cup window open a little bit longer.
Readers may wonder how I could make such a statement, especially after I twice quoted from the owner's rebuilding plan. But the Capitals already missed the playoffs, thus losing another season from the team's so-called Stanley Cup window. By replacing the two most prominent positions of authority on any NHL team (other than the owner) in a move usually reserved for a true rebuilding process, Leonsis has effectively held the championship window open by delaying the arrival of an actual rebuild.
Leonsis knows the clock is ticking on his team's core. Casey Ippolito of The Hockey News singles out Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Braden Holtby, saying they have "essentially been the core of the Caps, and they’ve won three rounds in seven seasons. Meanwhile, handfuls of teams have won more with less."
The Caps' owner also knows that his core players earn a significant amount of money and are signed under contract for several years. To illustrate exactly how much and for how long, view the following table on this group of six players:
|Washington Capitals' Core: Salary Cap Hits and Contract Lengths|
|PLAYER||AGE||EXP||POS||13-14 HIT||14-15 HIT||CONTRACT||EXPIRES|
This group of players represents 47.7 percent of the team's salary-cap obligations despite representing only 22.2 percent of the final 2013-14 roster, according to CapGeek.com.
For his part, McPhee was the Capitals' GM for the entire time this core of players has existed, having held the position for the last 17 years. He assembled this group, so the fact that they were unable to succeed falls largely on him. Casey Ippolito of The Hockey News explains, while also explaining what a new general manager will mean for the future of the Capitals' core:
McPhee was especially inept in his final year at the helm — look no further than the Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg trade — but his approach for the last seven years seemed to be fine-tuning the depth components of the team, believing his key pieces simply needed a different mix of role players around them. McPhee’s exit indicates the next architect of the Capitals might tear down some beams rather than landscape the lawn. Or perhaps it’s a major addition to the core that’s needed, rather than swapping a piece of it out. His successor might just be bold enough to trade Mike Green, or even consider trading (gasp!) Alex Ovechkin. Though an Ovechkin trade remains unlikely, a major move becomes a likelier possibility with the ousting of ‘GMGM’.
It remains to be seen who will be the new general manager and head coach for the Capitals.
Katie Carrera of The Washington Post wrote on April 26 that the Capitals' possible general-manager candidates include Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning, Philadelphia Flyers assistant GM Ron Hextall and Toronto Maple Leafs assistant GM Claude Loiselle.
That same day, Carrera compiled a list of possible coaching candidates that included former Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette, former Nashville Predators skipper Barry Trotz and former Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss Guy Boucher.
It may be some time before the Capitals fill either or both positions. On April 27, Carrera wrote the following assessment of these concurrent searches, with the perspective of Caps' President Dick Patrick:
Even though the Capitals would like to have someone in place by the 2014 NHL draft on June 27 in Philadelphia, Patrick said he doesn’t view that as a strict deadline. By keeping the scouting and hockey operations staff intact for the time being, Washington is equipped to proceed through the draft without a general manager if necessary, though that path would limit the team’s options during one of the busiest times for trades on the NHL calendar.
When both positions are filled, however, the issue of dealing with Ovechkin will have to be addressed. In fact, Craig Custance of ESPN.com (subscription required) wrote on April 26 that "Once everyone is on board, this becomes the first order of business."
Until that time, the Washington Capitals and their fans may enjoy a brighter future in the short term simply because of this dual maneuver by the team's owner. The former president of AOL, Leonsis is not attempting to rebuild his entire hard drive with these moves. He is simply replacing some software and then rebooting. This way, he can still achieve his ultimate goal before he has to scrap this model, sell it for parts and buy a brand new one in its place.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.