Brian MacLellan lands extension and promotion with the Capitals

Brian MacLellan is 64. He played his first NHL game 40 years ago. He has spent nearly a quarter-century as a scout and executive with the Washington Capitals. The 2023-24 season will be his 10th as their general manager. He won the Stanley Cup as a player. He won it again as a roster builder. The path to another title won’t be easy.

“I like the job,” he said by phone. “I like the challenge of it. Ex-players always say coaching is the closest thing to competing still. Even being where we are, in hockey operations, it’s competitive. It’s fun. The juices flow. So you get your fix of the stuff you kind of got as a player.

“I played because I had fun. You competed. It was passionate. Now, at this age, you do it at a different level.”

Because of his history with the club and his accomplishments leading it, the Capitals are not only extending MacLellan’s contract — which was due to end after the upcoming season — but are promoting him to president of hockey operations and general manager. The move, announced Monday, is for an undisclosed number of years and will allow longtime team president Dick Patrick, 76, to slide into a less active role as the franchise’s chairman. Perhaps more importantly, the club also will promote Patrick’s son Chris, 47, to associate general manager, potentially creating a line of succession when MacLellan ultimately retires.

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The moves create stability in the Capitals’ front office at a time when the team is in transition on the ice. When MacLellan took over as general manager from George McPhee — his old college teammate at Bowling Green — he had a clearly articulated path to improve the club’s lineup and culture. Now, with the core of those early clubs — Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie — on the wrong side of 30, the task in MacLellan’s final act will be more difficult than it was to make the tweaks that eventually turned the Caps into Stanley Cup champions.

“It’s a little harder,” MacLellan said. “I still think we’re competitive. Health’s been a big issue for us. We have an aging roster that lately has been struggling to stay healthy. Some of it is chronic and age-related. Some of it is just weird injuries. I don’t think we’re at the level that we were. I think there’s a possibility of still contending. We’re getting closer with the young guys we have now.”

Since MacLellan’s first season as general manager, the Capitals have a .640 winning percentage, and only Tampa Bay and Boston have accumulated more than Washington’s 409 wins. But the Capitals are coming off their first miss of the postseason in MacLellan’s tenure. The status of the roster — with Backstrom, in particular, slowed by a chronic hip problem — meant coach Peter Laviolette departed, and MacLellan installed Spencer Carbery as his fourth coach.

Carbery previously coached for the Caps in the minors, but this is his first time as an NHL head man. To an extent, the success of MacLellan’s final stanza will be up to the 41-year-old.

“It’s been really good so far,” MacLellan said. “I like the character. I like the enthusiasm. He’s at a good age where he’s all-in. He’s confident. He feels he’s ready. You can feel it from him, that he feels ready. I’m excited to see what he does.”

Carbery is getting this chance in part because the Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since they won the Cup in 2018 under Barry Trotz. Not only are the most important players on the roster older — Ovechkin will turn 38 next month — but most are signed to contracts that could weigh on the team in the future. Backstrom, 35, and Oshie, 36, are signed through 2024-25. Carlson, 33, is signed through 2025-26, as is Ovechkin, who is feverishly pursuing Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record for goals.

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Solving the problem of staying loyal to the players who changed the sport in Washington while trying to contend will be MacLellan’s chief challenge in the years ahead. He believes 2022 first-round draft pick Ivan Miroshnichenko will help soon, and there should be more time for prospects such as Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael.

“We’re getting closer with the young guys we have now,” MacLellan said. “I thought we had a good draft here. … There’s a good base to build from. Plus, the [salary] cap is going to go up over the next couple years. That should create some opportunities that haven’t been there. The last five years, with a flat cap, it’s been frustrating. You’re trying to survive instead of improve.”

At some point, improving the roster won’t be MacLellan’s job anymore. It sounds very much as though it could fall to the younger Patrick, who played at Princeton and worked on Wall Street before McPhee hired him in 2008. MacLellan has been impressed with how Patrick has developed in his role overseeing pro scouting and the club’s top minor league team in Hershey, which won the American Hockey League championship this spring.

“He’s done it the right way,” MacLellan said. “He came in and worked his way up. He tried different things and found a niche, and he’s done a real good job with Hershey. He’s done all the right things, and now he’s dealt with agents, he’s done some contracts. He’s been following the right steps to become a good general manager.”

The Capitals’ roster and their fortunes on the ice are in flux. Their front office is stable. It’ll be up to the latter to take care of the former so the franchise can return to contending annually for hockey’s biggest prize.

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