Over the course of 10 or 11 days Capitals owner Ted Leonsis asked a lot of tough questions to his team’s coaching staff, training staff and players.
Now it is Leonsis who will forced to answer questions from prospective general managers looking to replace George McPhee.
Chief among them is this
“Will I be given full authority to make the roster changes I see fit to turn the Capitals into a Stanley Cup contender?”
On Saturday, Leonsis answered that question with one broad stroke.
“We empower the people who work for us,” Leonsis said. “Just to put it in perspective, I’ve owned the team for 14 years and this was the first time I ever had exit interviews and talked to players.
“Our executives are deeply empowered and I would expect that we would give the new general manager the exact same liberties that George McPhee had.
“We want to win a Cup and we have the resources to do it. We spend a lot of money [the Caps ended the season with the NHL’s highest payroll]. The key message from us is this is about hockey. It’s not about, ‘We’ve sold all the tickets we can sell. We sold all the jersey s we can sell.’
“We have a great relationship in Hershey [AHL affiliate Hershey Bears], we have a great practice facility [Kettler Capitals Iceplex], We were a continuously improving playoff team until we weren’t. The last two seasons showed us we need to improve and that’s what it came down to. Dick [Patrick] and I said, ‘We have to make that gut check. Do we have to change and where do you start?’ You start with the coach and general manager.”
But do you end there?
Leonsis was asked Saturday if there are there any untouchable players on the Capitals’ roster? A player who, under no conditions, cannot be traded or bought out?
“I’m not the general manager,” Leonsis said. “If a general manager comes [to us] with something, we would listen to the general manager. But I’m not the general manager.”
One player who will most certainly come up during the Capitals’ search for a new general manager is 28-year-old captain Alex Ovechkin, a future Hall of Famer whom by most accounts, is the most dynamic player ever to wear a Capitals jersey.
Ovechkin has seven years and $70 million remaining on the 13-year, $124 million contract he signed in 2008.
There is nothing tricky about what remains on Ovechkin’s contract -- no loopholes, no backsliding in the final years. It’s a straight $10 million a year from now until Ovechkin turns 35 years old at the start of the 2020-21 season.
With four Rocket Richard trophies as the NHL’s leading goal scorer, Ovechkin appears to be at the apex of his career. But he is also coming off one of his most perplexing seasons, a 51-goal season mitigated by a career-worst minus-35.
Asked about the negative attention surrounding Ovechkin following his first non-playoff season since 2006-07, Patrick gave a resounding vote of support for the Caps’ Russian superstar.
“Alex Ovechkin is a great, great hockey player,” Patrick said. “I wish we had two of him, then we wouldn’t even be here today, probably. All he wants to do is win.
“Adam Oates helped him a great deal. He’s becoming a better player every year. The criticism goes unfairly, I think, tilted toward him when we’re not winning.
“People are saying, ‘Well, you’ve got Alex Ovechkin. How come you haven’t won a Cup?’ It does take a team. It takes 20 guys. How can you be unhappy with what Alex Ovechkin has accomplished and continues to accomplish in the National Hockey League?”
It is worth noting that beginning July 1, a limited no-trade clause kicks in on Ovechkin’s contract. It stipulates that on that date he can give the Capitals a list of 10 NHL teams to which he will not accept a trade, with Ovechkin holding the right to modify that list every September following the first year.
Would Leonsis grant a new general manager the right to trade one of the greatest goal scorers ever to play in the nation’s capital? That’s a question he will need to answer in the weeks and months ahead.
On Saturday Leonsis made it clear that it was not the opinion of Ovechkin that led to the dismissals of McPhee and Oates, although Ovechkin was one of the players Leonsis requested for an exit interview.
“We’re doing this not for Alex Ovechkin or me,” Leonsis said. “We want to win a Cup because the fan base, the city, the franchise and every person associated deserves that. We’re not making progress toward it and that’s why we’re making these moves.”
Be sure of this. The next general manager will make sweeping changes to the Capitals’ roster. We simply don’t know who will be swept out.