Caps Report: Ted Leonsis and the Caps’ GM

November 24, 2007 | Ed Frankovic

The firing of Glen Hanlon this week and the placement of “interim” in front of new Caps coach Bruce Boudreau only adds more credence to the idea that current Caps GM George McPhee is now squarely on the hot seat.

Clearly McPhee’s job should be in trouble given that the team has only made the playoffs once in the last five seasons, McPhee’s poor drafting history, and the fact that he basically received nothing in return for all of the big name players he traded away at the order of Ted Leonsis back in 2004. However, this is not as clear cut a decision as it appears and there are several reasons why McPhee has lasted this long.

As most people know, Leonsis LOVES being the owner of the Caps. While Leonsis has some very good qualities and wants to win badly this has actually caused the franchise more harm than good. Leonsis craves the spotlight and anyone who has ever met George McPhee knows that he is a quiet guy who could care less about being in the limelight. For that reason alone, McPhee has been the perfect fit for Leonsis, a soft-spoken guy who has done what Leonsis has wanted while Ted acted as the non-playing front man for the Caps franchise. Remember it was Leonsis who badly wanted Jaromir Jagr and McPhee obliged him by pulling off a masterful trade getting #68 for three of McPhee’s disappointing draft picks (Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuck). Then Leonsis strapped the team financially by giving Jagr that ridiculously large contract to try and make him want to play and stay in DC (Jagr had said that he preferred to go to New York). Jagr did play hard here at times and if McPhee had only invested in some defensemen, those Jagr teams might have gone a lot farther in the playoffs. However, McPhee chose to give Robert Lang $5M a year and try and get by with Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski playing lots of minutes on defense. Nothing against Lang, who played hard and was a great team guy, but the Caps clearly needed defensemen at that time (and still do).

George also did a lousy job of finding a coach after Ron Wilson was run out of town by hiring an inexperienced one with some off the ice issues (Bruce Cassidy). Then when that all went bad, McPhee again did exactly what Leonsis asked him to do in 2004: purge salary. This move sent the Caps spiraling down to the last place in the Southeast Division depths that they annually reside in these days.

McPhee, as mentioned earlier, didn’t get much for those big names and thus the team continues to struggle despite the lucky break of winning the NHL lottery and getting Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin is a restricted free agent after this season and wants to win badly, so if he doesn’t see progress here this season or early in the off-season he may decide to go elsewhere.

So Leonsis is clearly in a quandary. McPhee has done exactly what Ted has ordered at every turn (except win hockey games) and to fire him would essentially fire himself as the real GM. Before the season began Leonsis made another huge mistake proclaiming that the “rebuilding” was over. By doing that he loaded and pointed the gun at the heads of Hanlon and McPhee. But anyone who knows hockey will tell you this team is not done being rebuilt and it still needs work if they ever want to not only make the playoffs but compete for a Stanley Cup (the defense is not strong enough to get this team into/deep into the playoffs).

The problem for Ted now becomes if he fires McPhee then who would want to come in here and be GM? Will Ted allow the new GM to be the front man of the franchise off the ice (which the GM should be in hockey)? It is well known in NHL circles that Leonsis is a meddling owner who likes to be out in front of the team and media. As we all have seen in the past owners who try to have too much of a say in the sports related matters of the team often fail badly, especially in this area (see Peter Angelos and Dan Snyder). Leonsis may love hockey and the Caps but he does not know the sport like he needs to and he probably has a hard time admitting it. Perhaps he should give Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti a call sometime to learn a few things about what his role should be??!!

There is still time for Leonsis to get the franchise straightened out and the first thing Ted will have to look at is his own role. To win in sports an owner needs to do two major things: hire the right sports people and check their own ego at the door. It doesn’t matter how well an owner has done in their particular business, if they haven’t been totally involved in the sports business their whole lives/career then they should stay out of the sports portion. The owner’s role should be to provide the financial aspects/guidance for the franchise and help hire the proper people for non-sports related positions (marketing, public relations, etc.).

Anyways, should Leonsis pull the plug on McPhee here are some potential candidates for the position:

Craig Button — Button is the former GM of the Calgary Flames who was fired the year before the Flames went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. Current Flames GM Darryl Sutter gave Button credit for putting a lot of the pieces in place for that great Flames playoff run. Button is the son of former Caps Director of Player Personnel (the late Jack Button) and also has a Stanley Cup ring from his days as Player Personnel Director in Dallas (he drafted Jarome Iginla before GM Bob Gainey shipped Iginla off to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk). [Note: Craig’s brother, Tod Button, is the current Director of Scouting for the Calgary Flames and might be able to be pried away from Calgary if his brother were brought in to GM in DC. Tod took over Calgary’s draft in 2001 and already has struck gold by drafting star defensemen Dion Phaneuf. Tod started his hockey management career in DC as Director of Team Services in 1990 and worked his way up to Assistant Coach under Coach Jim Schoenfeld until the Poile regime was forced out in 1997 by Abe Pollin and Susan O’Malley. Tod is also a potential GM candidate.]

Craig Patrick — Patrick is the cousin of current Team President Dick Patrick and more importantly architected those great Pittsburgh Penguins teams that won two Stanley Cups back in the early 1990s. Patrick also was GM of the Rangers in the early 1980’s (he gave Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller (former Caps) their starts in New York).

Jim Nill — Nill is currently the assistant GM in Detroit and has three Stanley Cup rings. Nill has scouting experience and currently directs the draft each year for the Red Wings along with overseeing player development.

Steve Tambellini — Tambellini is the current assistant GM in Vancouver and worked with Team Canada and Wayne Gretzky. It should be noted that George McPhee was the assistant GM in Vancouver when the Caps hired him in 1997 (McPhee and Ron Wilson were recommended to Abe Pollin and Dick Patrick by Brian Burke, who was working in the league office at the time of Poile’s firing).

Neil Smith — Smith is the former GM of the New York Rangers and recently (2006) spent 40 days working as GM of the New York Islanders before resigning. Smith brought the Rangers their first Stanley Cup in 54 years back in 1994.

David Conte — Conte is the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Scouting for the New Jersey Devils. It is hard to find a better drafting record than the one Conte has been involved with (Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Gomez, Brian Rolston, Petr Sykora, and Patrick Elias) so he would be a good fit but appears to be happy working with Devils GM Lou Lamoriello.