Brian MacLellan

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Caps GM Brian MacLellan is not worried about any disadvantage from the bye week, says the Cup is 'up for grabs'

Caps GM Brian MacLellan is not worried about any disadvantage from the bye week, says the Cup is 'up for grabs'

With a round-robin tournament to determine the top four seeds in each conference heading into the playoffs, it is fair to wonder what was the point of the regular season? Considering those top teams will get a bye and then go on to play a team that just won a series in the play-in round, one could certainly argue that the 24-team format the NHL will use when it returns to play actually puts the top teams at a disadvantage.

But you're not going to hear any complaining from Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.

"I don't think there's a perfect solution here on the playoff," MacLellan said Friday in a video conference. "I think the league has done a reasonable good job of just trying to include all of the issues they can, and make it as competitive and compelling as possible. And I think it's very interesting how it could play out. It could be great to watch on TV."

Over the course of an 82-game regular season, there is incentive to finish high in the standings. The system is set up to try to give the top seeds a clear advantage in the playoffs in order to add meaning to the regular season. But that's not the system we have in 2020.

Each of the top four seeds in each conference receives a bye through the play-in round. Considering we don't know what teams are going to look like or how difficult it will be to get back up to game speed, that is a definite advantage. Even in a normal year, we see several upsets in the playoffs so the fact a team like the Caps are exempt from that is a definite boon. The problem is what happens after.

When the Caps take the ice in the round of 16, they will have played some exhibition games, three round-robin games to determine seeding and that's it. Their opponent will be coming off a playoff series. We may be calling it a play-in round, but that's just semantics. It's a do-or-die playoff series. It does not seem likely that Washington will be at the same intensity level or game speed as their opponent in that first round after three round-robin games.

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While MacLellan acknowledged the set up may provide the lower seeds with an advantage entering the round of 16, he thought the idea that it was unfair to the top seeds was overblown.

"[It] could be a slight disadvantage," he said. "You're going to play a few exhibition games and then you play a round-robin tournament. But I still think those games are going to be competitive against good teams. I mean you're playing Tampa, you're playing Boston, you're playing Philly - all real good teams. I don't know that it's going to be that big a deal for the next round, and they'll be playing competitive games. So I think it's a fairly level playing field. It's not perfect, but I think reasonably it's good."

Even if MacLellan is not buying the play-in teams getting a competitive advantage, he did acknowledge that there is not nearly as much incentive to earn the top seed considering there will be no home-ice advantage.

While being the "home team" will still earn teams a few slight advantages like getting the second line change, obviously with all the games being played in hub cities with no fans, the round-robin series won't be for "home ice."

“I don’t know, you’re in a hub city, what is home-ice advantage," MacLellan said. "You get last shift, you get your last change. I’m assuming that is a competitive advantage so seeding could become important. You would want that advantage throughout the playoffs. You look at Boston and Boston has probably earned to be a home ice, last change team throughout the playoffs, but they have to go through a mini-series to determine their seed. It’s important to a certain extent, but the fact that you are playing in a hub city lessens it a little bit.”

MacLellan is not going to come out and say this system puts Washington at a disadvantage, but there is no question there is a lot less on the line in the round-robin tournament than there is in the play-in rounds considering there is no home ice. But that fact is that we don't know what any of this is going to look like. All of this is unprecedented and anything can happen. For MacLellan, he's not going to worry about what advantages the Caps do or do not have because to him, the Cup is on the line and that's all he's focused on.

"I think the championship's up for grabs with the format is the way it is right now," MacLellan said. "A lot of teams could upset other teams and anything could happen, basically. And I think it would be entertaining, it would be compelling, and it'd be fun to watch. If you're one of the teams that gets upset, it might not be as fun. But it could be wildly entertaining."

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Capitals GM Brian MacLellan does not see why the 2020 Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan does not see why the 2020 Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk

The 2020 season is unlike any other and because of that, it has brought up debates that we typically do not see in a season. From year to years, no one really questions whether the winner of the Stanley Cup was somehow invalid. If you win four best-of-seven series, clearly you deserve to be the last team standing. But now that the NHL has a playoff format for when the league resumes play, there are those who believe this year's Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk.

That notion is ridiculous., but don't take my word for it. Listen to someone who has won the Cup twice.

Brian MacLellan won the Cup in 2018 as the Capitals general manager, but he also won it as a player in 1989 with the Calgary Flames. Obviously the way in which a winner will be determined this postseason is different than a normal year, but to MacLellan, he feels winning the Cup would mean just as much as in 2020 as it would any other year.

"It's going to be different, it's going to be unique," MacLellan said Friday in a video conference. "The format's unique, but I still think players are competitive. You get in that environment, you're going to want to win. Organizations want to win."

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You may be thinking to yourself, "what is he supposed to say?" but really, he had an opportunity to voice a dissenting opinion throughout the process. When the league voted on the 24-team playoff proposal, only two out of 31 teams voted against it and the Caps were not among them. MacLellan could have said this year is different or that it won't feel the same and, as someone who has won the Cup both as a player and a general manager, his opinion would certainly carry some weight.

But that's just not how MacLellan feels about it.

"Once we get into it and it gets competitive, I don't think players are going to sit there [and think] this is not the same," he said.

MacLellan added, "I don't know that it lessens it because we've had a break, we've had a situation that's come into society, come into sports."

Considering the winner of the 2020 Cup will have had to wait through a season pause of several months, played through a training camp, most likely live in seclusion in a hub city for several weeks throughout the postseason, won at least four rounds of playoff hockey (five if a play-in team goes all the way) and do all of it in the midst of a global pandemic, why would anyone think to win the Cup this year could somehow be less difficult or satisfying?

"It'll be different," MacLellan said, "But I think the satisfaction of winning a championship, playing with your team, playing with your teammates, getting through hurdles that you have to go through in the playoffs, I think that's all going to be very satisfying."

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The timeline for Capitals players to return to D.C. remains fluid according to GM Brian MacLellan

The timeline for Capitals players to return to D.C. remains fluid according to GM Brian MacLellan

While we may know what the NHL season will look like when it returns, we still do not know when that may actually happen. But with restrictions continually evolving and beginning to ease up in many cities across North America, it looks like the league could transition to Phase 2, voluntary activities at team facilities, possibly sometime in June.

Because of Phases 2 and Phase 3, training camps could be on the horizon, and we may start to see more players begin returning to Washington in the coming days. Just what the timeline may be for those transitions or for the players returning, however, remains very fluid.

"We have people that are in contact with certain officials within the government," general manager Brian MacLellan said in a video conference Friday. "Most of our conversation is with the NHL, the executives at the NHL. Some of our players - a lot of communication with trainers and team doctors. I think that's where our main focus or my main focus has been. We're trying to comply with what we believe are regulations that are continually evolving."

MacLellan added he was "Waiting on direction from the league but trying to be prepared for whatever day they open it up for us."

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But even when the facilities open, that does not mean MacLellan is expecting everyone to be back anytime soon and acknowledged that the varying comfort levels of each player regarding the coronavirus would largely dictate who returns for Phase 2 activities.

"I think the level of comfort varies across the board, just like it would I think anybody else in society," MacLellan said. "Some players are very concerned. Some players, their comfort level's high and they're ready to go. The communication, a lot of it comes from trainers, team doctors, the PA communicates to players. There's a negotiation between the league and the PA on certain concerns players have. The player reps voice concerns of individual players. I think it's all over the map. I think our job is to listen to the experts, listen to the league, listen to the concerns of the PA and the players and try and create an environment that we can continue to move forward in."

MacLellan made clear the team would not force or pressure anyone to return for Phase 2. But after Phase 2 comes training camps. While Phase 2 may be optional, the training camps are not.

MacLellan said he wants the players to do what they are comfortable within Phase 2 and anticipates some will remain at their current location and time their workouts and two-week quarantine to be ready for the start of camp.

"European guys, guys coming from out of town, I think they'll filter in as we get closer to the July 10th, if that's the actual date for training camp, I think guys will try and time it where they work out at home, kind of schedule in their two-week quarantine and a little bit period to skate, and then go to training camp," MacLellan said. "I would assume that's the way they would approach it."

The current situation stands in stark contrast to the normally regimented schedule of the NHL and the offseason. There's no set return date for workouts, there's no set return date for training camps and there is no set return date for the playoffs. The world continues to grapple with a pandemic and MacLellan has to prepare the team to make a run at the Stanley Cup while also being cognizant of the players' health concerns and he has to do it all without knowing if or when the league will progress through each phase.

It's a confusing time.

MacLellan said the team was "Trying to do the best we can to prepare to open up the rink and to allow guys to work out, and I think most importantly, to allow guys to feel comfortable with the environment that we're creating, that they can come in and work out and are reasonably protected from being infected from the virus."

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