Brian MacLellan and Washington Capitals’ perilous internal audit

Office Space
Office Space

Remember “The Bobs” from the movie “Office Space”?

They were efficiency consultants, brought in by Initech to parse the employment rolls; soul-less drones that had no loyalties nor played favorites. Slash and burn, and onto the next cubicle. Firing people on a Friday to cut down on the “incidents” they might create. 

The external audit is one way to overhaul a struggling organization. Then you have your internal audit: Putting the evaluation in the hands of someone that knows the personnel, the culture and the challenges. Perhaps it’s someone that served under an ineffective boss, biting his tongue to the point of piercing as he watched the company led down the wrong path.

Brian MacLellan was the Washington Capitals’ assistant general manager for player personnel for the last seven seasons. He served as their interim general manager when his boss, George McPhee, was let go after 17 years on the job.

On Monday, he was hired as the team’s new general manager, senior vice president … and internal auditor.

(The “Bobs” must love Ted Leonsis: Fires guys on a Saturday, hires them on Memorial Day.)

“I think one of the strengths that I have is my familiarization with the organization and the people in the organization,” said MacLellan in an introductory interview on the team’s website.

"We have witnessed his abilities firsthand, and we have tremendous respect for how he manages people and situations. We feel he has relevant, in-depth knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of our franchise and will be forceful in addressing them," said owner Ted Leonsis. "Brian always has displayed tremendous professionalism, passion and commitment to the Capitals. He has his own unique approach, and we are confident in his abilities to lead this organization to new heights."

Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick liked what they heard, apparently, because they opted to promote from within rather than bring in someone like Ray Shero (Penguins), Paul Fenton (Predators) or Don Sweeney (Bruins) that could have brought fresh eyes to the team and its various flaws.

But MacLellan sold himself as those fresh eyes; as an executive that wasn’t going to maintain the status quo established by his friend and predecessor, which led to the Capitals’ first non-playoff season since 2007 and the firing of both McPhee and Coach Adam Oates. It’s the same kind of sell job other assistant GMs have had to make, most recently Ron Francis in Carolina.

“I expressed my opinions and feelings about individuals and the team and the coaching staff. I think I had a good grasp of what was going on here,” MacLellan said.

One assumes he talked up Barry Trotz as his choice for head coach – a favorite of Capitals management, and the man they ended up hiring.

One assumes, as the player personnel guy, he talked up the need for more careful development of the Capitals’ prospects, rather than the yo-yoing between the AHL and NHL we’ve seen under McPhee; and keeping top prospects like Tom Wilson growing at lower levels rather than playing 7:56 per night in 82 NHL games.

One assumes he brought a level of honesty about core players like Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Marcus Johansson and John Carlson with regard to their future as Capitals.

One assumes he said the right things, because he got the job, and the Capitals now give the undeniable impression that they’re unwilling to turn the keys over to some outsider that’s going to scrap the car.

Washington’s riddled with problems. They have a lack of quality, championship depth at forward and on defense. They have a good young goalie that wasn’t good enough to prevent the previous GM from getting a veteran at the trade deadline to supplant him. They have Alex Ovechkin, simultaneously one of the most dominant and vexing players in the game. And they have a locker room that’s all too willing to hide behind Ovechkin like a shield as the criticism bounces away from them.

In theory, someone that wasn’t associated with building that roster would be charged with changing the direction and culture of the franchise – the aforementioned external audit – but the Capitals kept it in-house. 

Japers’ Rink was cautiously optimistic about the hire: “This is not a team that necessarily needs a huge shakeup - at least not yet - and the fact that MacLellan has played a role in crafting that roster could be beneficial, providing a bit of stability and consistency to a team that has radiated anything but in recent years.”

That said, as expected, MacLellan’s already getting skewered, from people calling it “more of the same” to Shawn Simpson of TSN, the Capitals’ former director of player personnel, saying he’s “never met a lazier/less passionate hockey man.”

Which is sorta mean. If you don’t know MacLellan’s background, he was told as a child that he might be crippled by the time he was 21 due to a bone disease in his left hip, wearing a body brace for a year. A broken neck suffered in a game when he was 19 was another setback he fought through. He went on to play 606 NHL games, winning the Stanley Cup in 1989 with the Calgary Flames.

McPhee promoted him to director of player personnel in 2004 after serving as a pro scout with the Capitals. MacLellan and McPhee were teammates at Bowling Green State University from 1978-82. 

And now, he replaces him as Capitals general manager, having told the Capitals what they wanted to hear.

As “The Bobs” would say: “He’s a straight shooter with upper management written all over him …”

How he draws distinctions between himself and McPhee will be how MacLellan defines himself in the new role. It’s already started with the hiring of Trotz, as McPhee didn’t hire a coach with NHL head coaching experience at any point during Alex Ovechkin’s career. Maybe it continues with a quick, legacy-establishing trade that shakes the core in a way McPhee never shook it.

Shakes it, but doesn’t break it. Because MacLellan’s hiring is, above all else, an indication that the Capitals believe this internal audit will reveal they’re a championship caliber team that's a few alternations away from winning, with cuts made from someone that knows the organization from the inside.

Would anyone doing an external audit of the Capitals feel the same way?







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