George McPhee on 'evolving' coaching search, transactions, NHL Draft (Q&A)

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George McPhee speaks after being introduced as the general manager of the Las Vegas NHL franchise during a news conference at T-Mobile Arena on July 13, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)
George McPhee speaks after being introduced as the general manager of the Las Vegas NHL franchise during a news conference at T-Mobile Arena on July 13, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee understands how the NHL coaching landscape has changed in the past month.

The decisions by the Boston Bruins to fire Claude Julien, the New York Islanders to get rid of Jack Capuano and the St. Louis Blues to cut ties with Ken Hitchcock has made McPhee’s choice on his team’s first bench boss both harder and easier. On the one hand, there is now more quality in the pool of coaches that Vegas could pick.

On the other, the increase in choices means a decision won’t be cut and dry. McPhee said original plan was still to hire a coach in the spring, but called the process “evolving.”

On Wednesday night, Newsday reported Capuano will meet with Vegas this week.

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Said McPhee, “Things can change quickly in this business and needless to say we’re aware of what’s going on out in the marketplace now.”

It’s a busy time for McPhee. Not only is he looking for a coach, he’s also close to the point where he can actually make moves. He just needs the green light from the NHL when owner Bill Foley has fully paid his $500 million entrance fee. McPhee won’t be able to make trades for players currently playing this season, but he can deal for draft choices, unsigned draft picks and make deals that have to do with the expansion draft.

“Well we just feel the sooner the better,” McPhee said. “We’d like to start doing some business. We’re ready to go and it’s important for us to be involved. It’s important for us to be at the table at the GM’s meetings because there are important decisions regarding the league and all of hockey in general are being made there and Las Vegas should be heard.”

We spoke with McPhee about the coaching search, player transactions, the June NHL entry draft and how he’s preparing for the expansion draft.

Q: When a coach gets fired how much does that change your list of candidates? This past month we’ve seen some experienced guys lose their jobs.  

McPHEE: Things have changed a great deal in the last month and there are some quality people out there, so it doesn’t make the process any easier. We just are really focused on trying to get it right because it is a key strategic priority for our franchise. 

What exactly is your ideal coach?

Several months ago our staff created a short-list of coaches who we thought would be the right fit for the Vegas Golden Knights – that would have the right personality traits and experience to be the right fit short-term and long-term and we indicated then that we could go all the way into the spring before we exhausted the process. It’s an evolving process and things can change quickly in this business and needless to say we’re aware of what’s going on out in the marketplace now, so we’ll continue to look at it and see where it goes, but our preference is to have an experienced NHL coach.

Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders looks on from the bench against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/ari/" data-ylk="slk:Arizona Coyotes">Arizona Coyotes</a> at Gila River Arena on January 7, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Getty Images)
Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders looks on from the bench against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 7, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Getty Images)

It seems like there are often new nuggets about the expansion draft rules that comes to light when we ask the league. Is it the same for you? How much contact do you have with the NHL on rule clarification?

It’s still a fluid situation. There are still some things that need to be defined. We had a lot of contact early on when we went through a mock draft and tried to understand the rules as best we could and we had a lot of questions after that and after each run-through since then we’ve had fewer questions and more clarity and we’re just able to focus on players.

How do you try to figure out who will be unprotected? Do you read media clips on other teams? Do you have league sources for this?

We have a full scouting staff that has been, pretty comprehensive in their coverage in trying to learn as much as they can about teams and players. You do everything you can to get some knowledge of what’s going on so I don’t think the process is really that difficult in trying to determine what players might be available. It’s not hard to identify the top players on each team and know who’s going to be protected. There are typically three or four guys on the bubble that are people we have to focus on and that all the GMs around the league will have to make difficult decisions on. Every club is going to lose a player. I think they’ve all accepted that.

Do you ever feel like you’re on the outside looking in against the 30 other clubs? It seems like they sometimes express their concerns in a united fashion to the league while you don’t have quite the strength in numbers to voice your issues.  

We understand that we’re not going to build our team through the expansion draft. We’ll get a decent base, but we’re going to have to build our team through the entry draft. We know that going in. And we know that teams are going to do their best to not lose good players, so we know what to expect. We’ve had conversations – we don’t feel like we’re on the outside looking in. We’ve had conversations with five or six teams now and the dialogue has really picked up since the start of this month. So I think we have a good understanding of what’s going on and have had good conversations with GMs and that will continue, so that’s the reason why we don’t feel like we’re on the outside.

Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick are the top two players in the upcoming NHL Draft and considered a cut above the rest. How badly do you want one of the top two picks?

(Laughs) There are several players there in this draft at the top that are pretty darn good players. We know we’re picking anywhere from No. 1 to No. 6 and it has been quite an advantage for us to know that from the start of the season that we’ll be picking in that cluster of players so it’s much easier to focus on the players we think might be there and what’s important is trying to figure out who’s No. 1, who’s No. 2, who’s No. 3, who’s No. 4 and we’re getting there.

Does it make more sense for an expansion team to be guaranteed a top-two pick in the draft instead of this whole ‘picking 1-6’ deal? 

Well, this is an easy answer. We’d like to be No. 1 but we weren’t involved in those negotiations. This franchise was told where they were going to select and that’s all there is to it.

Nico Hischier of Team Switzerland celebrates one of his 2 goals against Team USA during a QuarterFinal game at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships at Air Canada Centre on January 2, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Team USA defeated Team Switzerland 3-2. (Getty Images)
Nico Hischier of Team Switzerland celebrates one of his 2 goals against Team USA during a QuarterFinal game at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships at Air Canada Centre on January 2, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Team USA defeated Team Switzerland 3-2. (Getty Images)

You’ll be able to start making transactions soon – once owner Bill Foley finishes paying $500 million to the NHL reportedly in early March. Does it feel good knowing there’s a light at the end of this tunnel?

Well we just feel the sooner the better. We’d like to start doing some business. We’re ready to go and it’s important for us to be involved. It’s important for us to be at the table at the GM’s meetings because there are important decisions regarding the league and all of hockey in general are being made there and Las Vegas should be heard. It allows us, again, to do some transactions with clubs that are looking to do some business and we can also talk to college free agents, junior free agents – we should be allowed to do that to be competitive with everyone else because we are playing in October. There’s going to be plenty for us to do in June. It would sure be nice if we can get some other things out of the way in March.

Also transactions get fan-bases pretty excited, which should help interest in general.

Oh of course, and we have a terrific fan-base. We have 14,000 season tickets and they’re all locals. They’re small businesses, they’re families and they’re very excited about the team and they’re very excited about being a big part of the first professional franchise to come to Las Vegas. It’s no secret that it’s important to be in the news for us. They want to hear it and it’s important that we are available to them and that they can read about us online or in the newspapers or on television. Certainly to start doing things that will be talked about, to be making a trade here and there, to be signing a player here and there is going to be big news in Vegas. 

Where are you guys as far as scouting, looking at players and the day-to-day grind?

Well we have a pretty good rhythm going. We were fortunate to assemble a really qualified staff last August and September and got them out in the field and equipped with everything they need right away. That part of our operation has been running very effectively.

We have a pretty good rhythm. We’ve accomplished about 85 percent of the things we need to do in terms of coverage of hockey games, hiring of staff, front office, getting our air charter deal completed, things of that nature so we are now at the stage where we just hired a medical director and he will build out the rest of our medical staff so the rest of our time will be dedicated to watching players and then ultimately picking a head coach.

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So you’re doing way more than just looking at players? That’s really the part that we’ve been focused on, but there has been more to your job.

We’re a startup company and that means you are – everything is brand new when it comes to the hiring of employees, what benefits can we offer them? You start with those things and that takes a while to put medical plans into place and 401Ks into place. That doesn’t happen overnight. Again to get your staff equipped with all the things that they need takes time, so there were a lot of things that had to be done, that have been done. I would love to be able to go out and watch a hockey game every night but there are other things that I’ve had to do that have taken up a lot of time, but at this point we’re in really good shape and we like the way we’re operating.

How much time have you been on the road, watching players and scouting players? Has it been eaten up by other stuff or have you been able to do as much as you’d like to do?

I don’t think it’s ever as much as you’d like to do because most hockey people would like to be in a rink every night, but I’m getting out enough but I expect that it’ll be a lot now as we head down the stretch here as teams are more defined and as people at the amateur levels are more defined it’ll be a more efficient use of my time to get to the right rinks.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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