Leading up to the 2014-2015 season, Capitals players, coaches and management addressed the press at the team’s annual media luncheon. Inside Hockey contributing writer Alex Nseir caught up with first-year general manager Brian MacLellan to talk about Barry Trotz, culture changes, Andre Burakovsky and the Winter Classic.
AN: Brooks Laich recently said that he thinks the team is ahead of schedule in terms of adjusting to new systems implemented by coaches. Would you agree with that assessment?
BM: I think training camp’s gone well, coaching staff has done a real good job of teaching and implementing their systems. I think the guys seem to have picked up on them very well. I think another point to the point you make is that everybody came in really good shape this year. From day one they’re starting and I think we’ve all benefitted from that level of conditioning.
AN: Do you think this good start to camp and players coming in well conditioned is at least partially a result of the culture changes in the organization?
BM: Yeah, I do. I think Barry (Trotz) set a tone here and I think he set it in the summer after he was hired. I know he sent out a letter with the expectations of what he wanted in training camp and I think the guys responded to it. I think, I mean he’s an experienced coach, they weren’t sure what they were into, but he set the expectations and I think most of the guys have met them.
AN: Coach Trotz has mentioned that a team is like a family. Over the summer, did you discuss creating a family atmosphere for the Capitals?
BM: Me and Barry have had a number of conversations about the culture and we’ve talked about the locker room and what kind of atmosphere we have in our locker room. He set a good tone…the values that he has, the whole coaching staff has actually. They preach it, but they also live it and I think it rolls over into our team. And players see how they are and consequently I think we have a better atmosphere right now.
AN: Looking forward to the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, management from the Chicago Blackhawks recently mentioned that hosting a Winter Classic in 2009 was a transformative moment for their franchise. Are you expecting something similar for the Caps, maybe in terms of attracting new fans or changing the league-wide perception of the team?
BM: No, I think those are all consequences. I think it’s just important for us to play well, to set the tone and to play a good system game and to get off to a good start here. Once we do that, everything will fall into place. I don’t think you create something out of the Winter Classic, but you’re able to showcase whatever you’ve got going and in your organization, so hopefully we’re in a good point when that happens.
AN: Speaking of good starts, how important is a strong start for the Capitals this year after the sluggish beginnings to the past two seasons?
BM: I think every team in this league is looking (for a strong start). Those first 10 games are crucial to whether you make the playoffs or not. If you get off to a poor start…it’s hard to make up ground in the league. I don’t think we’re in a different boat than anybody else. You need to have a successful start and then you can build on that. So, I mean, we want to make the playoffs, and then do well in the playoffs. It starts with that first 10 games.
AN: It seems you have been able to turn weaknesses, specifically defense and depth at center, into strengths since last season. Can you comment on that?
BM: I think we have good depth on defense now – six, seven good guys that can play a lot. We’ve got a good balance of offensive and defensive guys, we’ve got puck movers, we’ve got the physical guys. I’m anxious to see how well it transforms our team into a better team.
Up the middle, we’ve got a lot of good young players that are vying for positions and ice times. It’s been a competitive situation here, so it’s good. (Andre) Burakovsky’s played really well, (Evgeny) Kuznetsov’s finding his way here, he’s a highly skilled player. We also have Brooks Laich, who can play a solid role for us, too, so I think we’re feeling good about ourselves up the middle, and as well defensively, and we’re looking forward to what effect that has on the goaltending.
AN: I think a lot of people are excited whenever a first-round draft pick makes the jump to the professional level. After your experience with Tom Wilson last year, where he was maybe pushed into a full-time situation too soon, will you approach the development of Burakovsky any differently?
BM: We’ve just kind of let him play and he’s gotten better every game we’ve played him in exhibition season. He’s earned it and he looks like he can handle it. We’ll see how he goes into the season here and what he’s comfortable with and what the coaching staff’s comfortable with. It sure looks like he’s going to be a good player here right away. We evaluate these players individually and some can handle more than others. Some can handle it physically, some can handle mentally. We’re trying to evaluate and we’re going to do the best we can to develop our guys.
AN: Barry Trotz said that 20 games into the season, he wants the entire league to know how the Capitals play. Are you hoping or expecting to surprise people this year?
BM: No, I think Barry’s setting a tone for our organization and our team. He has expectations, he has in his mind how we should be playing and I think we’ll be there and I’m looking forward to seeing it.