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Leonsis: 'We're ready to take the next step'


Leonsis: 'We're ready to take the next step'

During Saturday’s Capitals Fan Fest, which drew more than 2,500 fans to Kettler Capitals Iceplex, club majority owner Ted Leonsis met with the media to discuss the state of the Capitals. Here’s a full transcript:

It’s good to see everybody and it feels great to have a little hockey in the summer. Last summer, as everyone remembers, wasn’t a lot of fun for me and (Capitals president) Dick Patrick so it feels great to be in the building in the middle of the summer and see everyone smiling and very uplifted by our offseason moves. While all of the action was going on I was traveling. I was at Stonehenge (Wiltshire, England). I wanted to be as far away from the activity as possible. I’m really proud of the job that Mac (general manager Brian MacLellan) and Ross (assistant general manager Ross Mahoney) and his group and Barry (head coach Barry Trotz) did. I think we’ve improved the team and I think we’re ready to take the next step and we’re very excited about the upcoming season. OK, let’s turn it open for some questions.

On his reaction to the Caps signing Justin Williams and trading for T.J. Oshie:

I actually didn’t know because of the time difference and got a copy of the news release that this was going out. I thought that adding someone of that pedigree, somebody in the lineup who could act as a leader and someone who had been there before, (Williams’) resume speaks for itself. It’s wonderful that he wanted to be here. I’ll miss Joel Ward, but I think that adding someone like Williams was a really good move for the organization.

On what he has learned about Brian MacLellan in his first year as general manager:

My email to Dick Patrick to send to Brian was that Dick and Brian run silent, run deep. They are men of few words but very, very strong actions. When the season ended they told me what they were going to try to do and they’ve delivered on that, just as last season they said this is what we will attempt to do to improve our defense and they were very, very decisive. So what I’ve been very satisfied with is that they tell you what they’re going to do and they do it and there’s not a lot of drama around it. It’s very, very thoughtful and very decisive and I think the organization is in good hands.

On the Capitals losing out in the second round of the 2015 playoffs:

This loss really hurt a lot. I really thought we had a really good team. There was a two-minute or so period when I was in New York and we were within a couple of minutes of going to the (Eastern Conference) finals and the Wizards were playing in Atlanta and there was this one moment where I said, ‘Wow, we’re going to the (conference) finals and the Wizards are going to come home up 3 to 1’ and literally, like that, the Wizards lost and then the Caps had to go to Game 6. It just was a real reminder of how tough this is to craft a championship-caliber team. It’s so close. Every game is one goal and you can’t not be focused every single second. So, I thought we deserved better this year, but the Rangers moved on. It was a tough loss. I wasn’t happy or satisfied at all. I mean, in hindsight you look back and say we did better than the previous season. The previous season we didn’t makes the playoffs. But I wanted us to do better and thought we deserved a better fate. We have to internalize as an organization that our goal is to win a Stanley Cup and we keep falling short and we have to keep trying.     

On what it will take to get over the hump:

I don’t know. I’ll let you guys write what it takes. I think we have to be an organization that strives to continuously improve and take some risks and make changes where possible and I think we did that this offseason.

On whether he is trying to get an NHL or NBA All-Star game at VerizonCenter:

No, I haven’t focused on that in any way. I haven’t asked. We had a lot of work that we had to do as an organization last year around the Winter Classic. It’s a lot of work. I think right now we’re better suited to have every single person in the organization only focused on one thing and that’s to have a more productive season. As time goes on, certainly our fans deserve to have an All-Star game here, but right now I’m more focused on the task at hand.

MORE CAPITALS Leonsis: 'I haven't met my commitment to him'

On the influence Barry Trotz has had on attracting free agents:

Well, I think Barry and Brian are a really good team. They have a real respect for one another and they’re totally in sync on what kind of system that we’re going to play. They’re both men of not only high integrity but of honesty and I think hockey players at their core can smell a sales job a mile away. So, I don’t view it as Barry as a salesman. I view it as him being able to communicate to the players precisely what it is we’re trying to build. How, from ownership to front office to everyone on the staff, we’re committed to one goal And he’s able to talk to the players or the prospective players coming in what their role will be and that they can trust him. Coaches really create the culture and the environment and he’s very, very family oriented. He’s very focused on making sure the players have a good time, that they enjoy coming to the rink. It’s a grind of a season and he’s an experienced coach and he runs very, very crisp practices. He tells them about Kettler. Kettler continues to be a great sales aid for us as an organization. People just love being here and our community just continues to be a real aid for us because the school systems here in Virginia, Washington and Maryland are fantastic and the housing situation is really great. I talked several years ago about ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and how it was very important for us to become a ‘have’ team and a destination in the NHL and I think certainly we’ve reached that status.

On losing players (Mike Green, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward) that for years were the fabric of the Capitals:

Troy (Brouwer) was a very important part of the team. A great guy, great family man and he really contributed. So those are very, very tough emotional decisions. But if you’re not taking the next step organizationally, you have to try something new. That was a trade where maybe we get more skill; maybe we get some more offense. Like I said, Joel Ward is one of my favorite players, one of my favorite people. He contributed a lot to the organization, to the team, but he’s a free agent. Players play their careers in order to become an unrestricted free agent. There are salary cap issues. There’s a lot of planning that goes into how you’re going to spend your money and what players have you drafted and where you think they’ll play in the lineup. It was really interesting just to watch how all of that came together. Joel got a great deal (3 years, $9.825 million with the San Jose Sharks) and he’ll go to a great organization. He was a fantastic player for us and I’ll miss him, but we’ll welcome a player (Williams) who has won three Stanley Cups. And so, hopefully, he brings something different to us. They (Brouwer and Ward) both were, through their resumes and track records, fantastic clutch players. Joel, I’ll miss him personally. I really had a good time with Joel. We’d go to basketball games together and talk a lot. I liked him and admired him very much.

On Alex Ovechkin turning 30 in September and the window to win with him in his prime:

I felt the window to win with Ovechkin was 10 years old. He’s a fantastic player. I think all of you in this room, don’t take Alex Ovechkin for granted. I think that happens sometimes. You see him all the time and there’s this repetitiveness about his greatness. But when people from outside the organization come in, I think you heard that with Justin Williams, this is the best player in the league. He’s been that for the last 10 years. And the consistency that he has brought is really historical.  He doesn’t miss games. He plays hard all the time and I feel I haven’t met my commitment to him, that we would build a team that would be able to win Stanley Cups. That we’re in it together.  He knows we’re committed. He can sense it and see it. He sees how much we invest. He knows how much we spend. He knows how hard we’re trying. It’s so close. The difference between winning and losing is just so small. So, I do not think our window as an organization is closing. I think we’ve improved as a team and I’m hoping, like all 29 other owners, that this is the year. And the only way you’ll know it is talking to you next year at this time to say, how did the season go?

On the NHL adopting 3-on-3 overtimes:

At the league meetings a lot gets reviewed and then there’s the competition committee. They’re constantly trying to do what’s best for the fans but also the players. I do think the 3-on-3 will work. It’s been tested in the AHL and it’s gone over fine. I think it’s a good step forward for us. It’s funny, you get into the playoffs and there is no shootout. That’s the one thing that always concerns me a little bit. The more we change the regular season formats and the game’s structure and then there’s this radical departure as you get into the playoffs. But I’m glad they voted for the change and I’m fully supportive of it. … As we saw, there’s honestly nothing like the intensity of playoff hockey. You want that fidelity around the outcome. We beat the Islanders in a seven-game series and there was a one-goal or two-goal difference for all seven games. We could just as easily have lost in the first round, so overtime in the playoffs is to be protected. The game is just fine the way it is during the playoffs.  

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

USA Today Sports

The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”


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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.