Ted Leonsis attempts to ‘future-proof’ the Caps with the hiring of Chris Patrick

The Washington Capitals began a transition of power on Monday. That can’t be considered normal, because the Caps aren’t a normal franchise. Ted Leonsis has owned the NHL team since 1999. On Monday, he installed Chris Patrick as his third general manager. In an inherently unstable company, that’s remarkable stability.

The transitions, for a franchise that has made 15 postseason appearances in the past 17 years, have been seamless and in-house. George McPhee is the only top hockey executive Leonsis has fired, and when he did, he turned to Brian MacLellan, McPhee’s longtime assistant. MacLellan remains the team’s president, a role in which, as Leonsis said, “he has the final say on everything.”

But in the daily phone calls to other general managers and the meetings with coaches and trainers, the man with his finger on the pulse of the organization will be Patrick, the 48-year-old member of one of hockey’s royal families who left a secure and lucrative job in finance 16 years ago to start at the lowest level in the Capitals’ corporate office. His father is the Capitals’ longtime president, Dick Patrick, whose father, uncle and grandfather won Stanley Cups as players. Chris played at Princeton. He could have been successful doing something else. He couldn’t shake the game. Now he’s running a team.

“I see it as a natural progression for the organization,” Leonsis said Monday by phone. “It kind of future-proofs us. Mac and Chris are really very similar birds. I was joking with someone the other day that Chris is more like Mac than he is like his father. They think about hockey — and the economics of hockey — in a very smart and analytical way.”

While the transition was bound to come at some point — the Caps promoted MacLellan to president of hockey operations and general manager last summer, when they also extended his contract — it also seems sudden. MacLellan, 65, has just taken charge of executing an offseason plan that, on its face, appears to have vastly improved a roster that was slated to make the playoffs in its final regular-season game.

“This was bound to happen sometime, right?” MacLellan said. “I’m fine with it. And I’ll be there to help him.”

Before we talk about the younger Patrick — and how he’ll handle the transition from the Alex Ovechkin era to whatever comes next — a moment about MacLellan. I’ll admit I had my doubts when Leonsis finally parted ways with McPhee after the 2014 season — a tough decision, to be sure — and essentially turned to McPhee as his right-hand man. You recognized the need for new leadership and chose the guy who had been in the room the whole time?

What Leonsis discovered — and acted on — was that MacLellan was a disarmingly honest and sharply analytical thinker with clear plans to improve the roster, with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as the key figures. Does trading Troy Brouwer for TJ Oshie seem like a good move after all these years? How about signing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen as free-agent defensemen? Or trading for Lars Eller?

What followed were back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, kick-in-the-gut losses to Pittsburgh in the playoffs each season, before the Stanley Cup in 2018. It’s easy to point to the fact that the Caps haven’t won a playoff series since their championship, and that needs to change. But they’ve played relevant hockey throughout MacLellan’s tenure, a 10-season stretch in which only Boston and Tampa Bay have collected more points in the standings. MacLellan wouldn’t know this, but of the GMs with at least 500 games overseeing a franchise, only two have earned a higher percentage of the available points.

“When you really think about it, we’ve won a lot of games,” MacLellan said. “When you’re pushing through, you don’t think about it. But when you look back, we’ve been competing for a long time. That consistency, that’s a big thing for me.”

So there’s a consistent approach. MacLellan had a 10-year career as an NHL player, but he didn’t immediately go scouting and front-office work. Instead, he went back to school and got an MBA. Patrick initially resisted the pull of the family business and went to work on Wall Street, then for Constellation Energy. He got his MBA from Virginia in 2008 — but he took all that background and applied it to hockey.

“I don’t think enough organizations value those kinds of experiences,” MacLellan said.

When Patrick joined the Capitals for the 2008-09 season – a hire made by McPhee – he did so on the bottom rung of the executive ranks.

“He was making a lot of money at his old job,” Leonsis said. “I laughed. Like, ‘What do you do?’ He just said, ‘Well, it’s in my blood.'”

“When I was in finance, I went to games as a fan and I felt like I was missing out,” Patrick said. “I mean, I’m a fan and that’s fun. But I feel like I could offer so much more. I just didn’t want to always have that question about myself.”

Over the years, he was given more and more responsibility. When MacLellan was promoted last year, Patrick took the title of associate general manager. The line of succession seemed obvious.

“I really consider Mac a mentor for my entire career,” Patrick said. “He’s very organized, very thoughtful. He has a plan and he works through a very analytical process to execute it. And everyone in our group has a voice. It’s not a democracy and it shouldn’t be. Mac makes the final decision. But nobody tries to be the I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong guy. It’s okay to have a different opinion and he’s created that environment.”

So, what’s next? The decisions for the 2024-25 season have been made, and they’re exciting. But Ovechkin needs just 42 more goals to pass Wayne Gretzky for the longest-ever scoring streak. He turns 39 in September. His contract expires after 2025-26.

What does Chris Patrick envision when number 8 is at the top of the ice instead of on the ice?

“When your stars get old, a lot of people think, ‘Rebuild, rebuild, rebuild, and just start over,'” Patrick said. “That’s a strategy, but I don’t know if that’s a strategy for everybody.”

The Caps’ strategy going forward will increasingly bear the fingerprints of Chris Patrick. The challenge will be twofold: leading the franchise into an era where it no longer has its undisputed franchise player, but also maintaining the consistency that a generation of fans has come to expect.

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