Part 2 of my interview with Caps' owner Ted Leonsis...
CC: I have to ask you what your view on fighting in the NHL is since it’s kind of a hot-button topic right now.
TL: I think it’s an integral part of the game. The thing that I don’t think people understand about hockey is that it's so different than other games. I went to the Nats game the other day and from the dugout to the 3rd base line is about 40 feet...and you go to football game and you watch guys running out of bounds. And you go to a basketball game and you see basket-hanging or they’re resting during foul shots. You go to a hockey game and you realize there’s no place to hide. You’re not going out of bounds, you’re getting smashed into the glass. Your shift is 30 seconds long and you are expected to go hard for that 30 seconds.
Unlike some other sports, its such a unified team game. You can really let your teammates down by performing at 95%, and that’s why when you see teams really playing well they’re really tight, they’re standing up for one another, because they’re going 110% full out. There’s no gliding in hockey when you’re playing hard. Coming out of that I think you end up with personal strife, I think you end up with an in-your-face game. And then there’s a hundred years of code – who fights who, how you stick up for your team, and who goalies fight and what your enforcer does – it’s a part of the game.
Now when we played Atlanta [back in November] I was torn. On the one hand I understand exactly what happened. On the other, I received a lot of e-mails and letters from fans saying they were not in support of it. It does cut both ways.
CC: Do you think it has a positive or negative effect on ratings and attendance, or no effect at all?
TL: I think they cancel each other out. You get ten e-mails that say ‘how dare you, I’ll never go to another game’ and you get ten e-mails saying ‘thank Donald Brashear for me’ or ‘can we chip in and pay for the fine’...
CC: You seem to really understand the game. Did you grow up watching hockey?
TL: I did, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, then Lowell, Massachusetts. I got to see a lot of original six games. We'd go see the Rangers play Montreal and Toronto and Chicago and the like. Then I moved to Massachusetts during the Bobby Orr [era], those great Bruins teams. I didn’t play ice hockey. We were too poor to pay for the ice time but I did play a lot of roller hockey growing up if you can believe it. And then we played floor hockey in college, so I love the game and I love indoor sports.
As much as I am a student of the game I don’t think I know anything about the game professionally. The couple of times that I would say I’ve gotten into trouble were when I thought I had an opinion that mattered [laughs]. So now I let the professionals make the calls because they’re going to take the grief and the heat when it doesn’t work, so they should get the accolades when it does work.
CC: So are you able to enjoy the game as a fan or do you find yourself constantly focused on the fact that you’re basically signing their paychecks?
TL: No, I live and die as a fan when I go to the games. I watch the games and enjoy when we win and feel awful when we lose. From a business standpoint, in the offseason you work with the front office and they tell you here’s what we think we should spend and here’s what we’re going to try to do and here’s how we think it’s going to work and you say yes or no, and they execute on it. There’s not a lot or meetings during the year. If there’s a big trade George will tell ownership what he’s doing and why. You want to trade Dainius Zubrus, it’s your call...and it had better work. You just have to let them do that because if you don’t and it doesn’t work they’re not accountable.
CC: Along that same line, we saw the big contract Detroit gave to Datsyuk recently which will probably impact the prices of some free agents this offseason. Is there a spending limit for each position in the offseason or is it a little more flexible?
TL: I think the big decision that all teams have to make is what is your core for your team and which players are going to be consistent in the team. Olie is a core player and he gets a lot of money for us. He is well compensated. Alex [Ovechkin] will be coming off his contract and he’s going to make a lot of money. Semin’s probably going to make a lot of money. We have a lot of very young defensemen. We have players that’ll be growing up on the team, and if you want to keep them you’re going to have to be able to retain their services.
At the same time we have holes to fill and the levers you use are trades and free agency. We’re fortunate in that when we make a trade now we have some assets on the team. We have young, less expensive up-and-coming players we’ve drafted. There are some teams that might get themselves into cap trouble, where they’re not happy with their financial situation, and we may be able to make a trade and get a player that just signed and [has] two years left on their contract.
The biggest issue that I see with some of these signings is the length. If you’re signed for 6 years, for the most part that player’s contract won’t be movable because you can no longer pick up part of someone else’s salary. Take the Jagr contract for us as an example. We couldn’t have moved that contract – I had to pick up some of the salary, and you can’t do that anymore. So when you make a free agent signing for a big number and a long time, it had better work. And when you’re making a big commitment, what if that nullifies your ability to keep someone that have already that’s part of your core?
So it’s a balancing act with a hard cap. What George has to do is come to us and say here’s the players that we have and consider our core and then show what the next 3, 4, 5 years for them will look like. Here’s the holes that we have, here’s the need and how we think we can fill it, and here’s what the budget will be. Then you hope for health – I feel for these teams that sign a player to a big contract and then that player gets hurt, like Ed Jovanovski.
Drafting, developing and retaining your own players and making astute trades and then big free agent signings – it's statistically proven that the big free agent signings have the highest risk. Everyone likes them, they’re sexy. As an owner you want to do them because of the media coverage and you can get better without giving anything up. But every year there’s an analysis done [that looks at] the teams and the big free agent signings, and how they did. And if you look really carefully they didn’t really work.
The biggest spenders last offseason were Phoenix, Chicago, Boston, and Columbus – all out of the playoffs. When you look at the media reports from last summer, they were all dramatically improved, all brilliant moves. Then you look at the media reports when they’re not making the playoffs, and it’s ‘fire this guy, fire that guy, I knew this wouldn’t work...’ And some of these [teams] have players signed at a really high number and they’ll regret that move.
I’m not fearful of it. I’m a risk taker by nature; I’m just surprised at the media and frankly some of the message board posters and the e-mails that believe the only way to improve this team is by signing these three unrestricted free agents and you want to say, maybe, but there’s more cases of not achieving than achieving. And we know that developing players really works.
I did a blog post about Semin recently. We drafted him and the [scouts] loved him. I saw flashes of something great in him the last 10 games he played [before the lockout]. When he was playing in Russia, he looked good. I said I thought this guy would be a 30-40 goal scorer this year and he was. Then you look at the eleven people above him that led the league in goal scoring and there were no free agents. They were all home-grown people and so you think that was better than a free agent signing. I’m not saying we’re not going to pursue free agents – what we’re trying to do is get people to be realistic, that if you don’t have a strong core that grows up in your system you can’t add to it with free agents. That’s what we believe, and I believe that.
CC: Speaking of growing from within, what have you heard about Nicklas Backstrom? Any news on him coming over here next year?
TL: I’m optimistic that we can get him to play here next year. He is being called the best player in the world not in the NHL and I believe that. I’ve seen lots of video of him this year. He got another year of experience under his belt playing with men and that’ll be another example – we’ll bring him in and he’s very young but he’s going to be a very good, impactful player. We’ll add on top of him, too, but he’s better to us than a free agent signing. Someone who you drafted, he’ll be with you for hopefully a dozen years. I’d rather do that and then add a free agent than sign two free agents. I don’t think that’s the right way to build a team.
CC: You’ve mentioned the teams that have faltered a bit or maybe gone the wrong way since the lockout. Which teams have really impressed you since the lockout?
TL: Teams that have surprised me...Buffalo as a team surprised me. They got better faster and they’ve been a dominant team this year. They probably don’t have a single true breakout superstar – they’ve got a half dozen A-minus players and that was interesting. That’s a team with four lines that can score and when you watch them play and you study the game or sit up high, there’s five guys motoring down all the time on you.
Then there’s Tampa Bay who surprised me. Tampa went the other way. Three big, expensive players eating up the majority of their cap, their core guys, then they keep filling in around them. So it’s interesting that either way can work.
Now let’s see who wins the Cup...
CC: Which brings me to who do you think is going to win this year?
TL: I’m a contrarian, I think Ottawa will win this year.
CC: Mike Vogel said the same thing.
TL: Really? [Checks] Huh. He has Ottawa downing Nashville, that’s interesting. I think Anaheim will come out of the west just because I think they’re tough and they have defense and goaltending and they have those two key guys playing 30 minutes a night. But I just think for so many years Ottawa has disappointed people and I just think it’s their year – they’re like the Colts to me.
Again, thanks to Ted for taking the time to answer a mere blogger's questions. We're all looking forward to the change that's coming...and hoping it's clad in red, white and blue!
Oh, and Ted - in case you change your mind about offering an opinion on free agent signings...I thought Chris Drury looked really good against the Islanders last night. Just a thought :)
Friday, April 13, 2007
Part 2 of my interview with Caps' owner Ted Leonsis...