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Washington changes course with tough talk, new coach

From left, Washington Capitals hockey team owner Ted Leonsis, new general manager Brian McLellan, new head coach Barry Trotz and team president Dick Patrick smile during a news conference Tuesday, May 27, 2014 in Washington.

AP Photo/The Washington Post

If what was said at Tuesday's Washington Capitals press conference can be taken at face value, then Brian MacLellan struck a blow for disgruntled employees around the world.

According to Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, MacLellan is his new general manager because he took the chance of telling the boss everything that was wrong with his hockey team. Best of all, MacLellan also told Leonsis what was wrong with him.

This came up when Leonsis opened the press conference that introduced MacLellan and new head coach Barry Trotz, anticipating the obvious question: Why, after firing GM George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates and making a big noise about looking far and wide for new blood, did you turn around and hire McPhee's long-time right-hand man, who was already your interim GM?

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"In his interview, he was pretty straightforward," Leonsis said, adding that MacLellan laid out what was wrong with the franchise and then turned his eye on the owner. "He led off with some of the things I have to do to be a better owner. I thought that was very brave and very astute. You don't often hear things like that.

"I'll tell you, his was the most negative of the interviews. There's a great quote, 'With familiarity comes contempt.' I liked that brutal honesty that he brought, when you have confidence in yourself to tell people what they don't want to hear. I had never heard that before. To me, [MacLellan] was a new voice, and frankly, he had the most aggressive viewpoint on what we had to do to move forward."

Capitals president Dick Patrick said he and Leonsis interviewed about 15 people for the GM job, so it was clear MacLellan's interview was just a courtesy to a long-time employee. Which is probably why he figured he might as well tell it like it is.

"I didn't think I had anything to lose," MacLellan said. "The important point I was trying to make is that the team feels it when there's a disconnect and not a unified philosophy from ownership to manager to coach. I thought all three of us have to have a team approach moving forward."

Neither MacLellan nor Leonsis were willing to say just what Leonsis needs to do to be a better owner, but a good guess is he was told to stop coddling superstar forward Alexander Ovechkin. Granted, Ovechkin turned the sizeable Washington market on to the Capitals when he started scoring 50 goals a season eight years ago.

Then Ovechkin was given the run of the place under Leonsis and defence was a dirty word. That translated into years of playoff meltdowns, and eventually Ovechkin's scoring waned.

This is why Trotz, regarded as the best defensive coach in the league thanks to 17 years of keeping the no-frills Nashville Predators competitive, is the new man. He was admittedly the apple of ownership's eye from day one, which is why he landed a contract that is thought to be four years plus an option.

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Since Leonsis, MacLellan and Trotz all spoke from the hymnbook dedicated to teamwork above all, it's safe to say Ovechkin will find he has to make some adjustments to his game. Leonsis also said "we're not rebuilding the team, but we are going to refresh the team."

Trotz said he only spoke briefly to Ovechkin because he caught him "at Mr. Putin's house" during a party to celebrate Russia's win at the World Championships. The new coach added: "My job as a coach is to find a way to allow [Ovechkin] and the other players to reach their potential as a group."

Trotz lasted 17 years in Nashville, a remarkable run for an NHL coach, by demanding a two-way game. There is no reason he cannot instill defensive structure in the Capitals, but this will be the biggest challenge of his career.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More


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