If you take the Toronto Maple Leafs at their word, you accept they are in the infant stages of building a year-in, year-out championship caliber organization. However, considering the recent history of the Washington Capitals and its owner Ted Leonsis, it would be wise for Toronto GM Cliff Fletcher to keep hold of most, if not all of the Leafs’ future draft picks he has not already traded away.
That was the message I got when speaking to Leonsis on the phone last week for an interview that will run in the next edition of The Hockey News’ sister publication, Hockey Business News. The affable AOL executive may not have been referring to the Leafs in particular, but he was crystal clear when it came to disclosing the manner in which the Caps were remade from stripped down shack prior to the 2004-05 NHL lockout into the genuine Stanley Cup contender they are today.
Asked what he had learned after just about 10 years as an NHL owner, Leonsis said:
“You know, I’ve always worked in public companies, but here’s a private company (in the Capitals).
“So I said, ‘OK, we don’t have shareholders like Wall Street. We have stakeholders – our fans.’ And you always hear businessmen being criticized for not taking the long-term view; that they have to meet the next 90 day’s quarterly results. So they view things for the short term, at the detriment of the long term of the company.
“I said, ‘OK, if I wanted to be critical of ourselves and myself, and look at what is it that my deliverable is as the owner and the CEO of this team, it’s that we need to deliver a Stanley Cup.’ That’s the ultimate definition of success in our sport. You have to close your eyes and ask yourself, ‘Can this team win a Stanley Cup today or in its immediate future?’
“And it was very troubling to have to honestly say, ‘No, it can’t,’ even though it was successful as defined by making the playoffs or having star players.
“So we did something dramatic and radical and said, ‘Let’s benchmark and look at the teams that have won Cups in the NHL and the teams that have won in the NBA and NFL. Let’s also look at what happens when a (salary) cap system went into place.’ We were the first team that hired a capologist and spent the lockout doing research and best practices on what works and what doesn’t in a cap-based system. We were very analytic and research-based.
“We learned a lot of things: first, for the most part, teams that are in the playoffs and out in the first or second round, and do that consistently, stay right where they are. Because they replenish themselves, as the Caps were doing, with the 15th pick in the draft and 18th pick in the draft. While the teams that are really good, that eventually become really bad, tend to get high picks.
“We also learned that the system is created so that, if you draft and develop well – and those younger players tend to be less expensive at the start of their careers – that’s how you’ll build a good team. So we went and we traded every brand name, high-paid player who was in his 30s and went into it with the strategy of, ‘Let’s get a (draft) pick and a prospect.’
“Pick-and-prospect, pick-and-prospect, was what we tried to do. And it was dramatic and I was very transparent about what we were doing. I was criticized like you can’t believe. The Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell said, ‘Go to Ted’s house, take your season tickets, burn them and throw them on his lawn.’
“But I was committed and I believed. Pick-and-prospect, pick-and-prospect. Give them time to play. And we were really bad one year and we were really bad the next year. But we had high picks. And last year we started out the game bad then we played pretty good.
“This year, we’re kind of looked at as a model franchise. We haven’t achieved anything yet, but we’re still one of the youngest teams in the league, and we’re loaded. Now I watch as other teams face the music and you can almost see them try to emulate what (Capitals GM) George McPhee and his staff did.
“What (building a contender) takes is guts, analytics, planning and then patience. That’s hard to come by.”
Leonsis, whose blog, www.tedstake.com, receives upwards of 30,000 hits per day, also was forthcoming regarding the league’s need to be, um, more forthcoming:
“I believe in (transparency),” Leonsis said. “I just gave a keynote speech in D.C. and someone introduced me by saying, ‘He showed up and he doesn’t have an entourage. Where are your people?’ Well, I don’t have any ‘people’ and I think the new consumer can smell B.S. and someone who is handled and scripted a mile away.
“Consumers want to know who you really are, what you really stand for and want that consistency. I think, good or bad, people know who I am – through my blog, through Facebook, through my emails, through my interviews, through my message board postings and the like.
“And I do think that, in this new world, the most media-sensitive and savvy executives will do best. Because everyone’s connected, everyone’s online, everyone’s living in these three screens of TV, PC and mobile, and so to not be transparent, to not be quoted, to not embrace this, is really counter to where the world is going.”
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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