Las Vegas exists for flights of fancy. For dreaming of jackpots and fresh starts and new lives. Sometimes you beat the odds and they come true. Most times you end up drunk and broke at a penny slot on the old strip.
George McPhee doesn’t need to dream of a fresh start or a new life, as many of his NHL general managerial brethren do, because Las Vegas owner Bill Foley has handed them to him. The NHL’s Las Vegas expansion franchise will be built from the ground up in George McPhee’s image.
“It’s a clean slate. It’s what every GM wants to experience at some point in his career,” said McPhee, who was named the expansion franchise’s first GM on Wednesday.
“Historically, you take over a team that needs work. You have to take on players with bad contracts or get rid of players that aren’t getting the job done. You have to make changes on staff. What has to be done has to be done, but it’s negative fun.”
Great term: “negative fun.”
It pretty much describes what the Washington Capitals were by the end of McPhee’s tenure there in 2014, after 17 seasons as general manager.
They were the entertaining “Rock The Red” team that had amassed a collection of division titles and a congregation of dedicated new fans. They were also a perpetual disappointment in the postseason, flailing around in an attempt to unlock a playoff achievement they’ve still yet to unlock in McPhee’s absence.
He accomplished a great many things as Capitals GM, on and off the ice. But to paraphrase Natasha Romanoff, McPhee still has blood on his ledger.
What you wanted to hear from McPhee as he officially took over the Las Vegas Whatevers was some level of acknowledgement that his experience in Washington, and his experience away from the general manager’s office, had given him an education and a self-evaluation about the executive that he was and will become.
Some of it was encouraging. Some of it was worrisome.
First, the good news: George McPhee realized there are other teams in the League than the one he manages.
After the Capitals fired him, McPhee watched a lot of hockey, at all levels, as his son was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers last month. He also served as a Special Advisor to the General Manager for the New York Islanders, furthering his education. He said he realized that as a GM, he was “so locked into” the Capitals that he didn’t know the rest of the NHL’s players and landscape as much as he should have.
“My best trades are when I really knew the players. My worst were when I didn’t,” he said.
(See: Erat, Martin.)
It also seems like he’s learned a thing about bad contracts and, hopefully, the blind loyalty that led to them.
Two of McPhee’s worst decisions with the Capitals were handing Brooks Laich a six-year contract in 2011, and his slavish dedication to defenseman Mike Green through multiple contracts. Both moves hindered the team’s cap flexibility, and both firmed up a core that hadn’t produced anything in the way of playoff success.
George McPhee, now? “You can survive the loss of a player. You can’t survive a bad contract,” he said.
At worst on Wednesday, McPhee sounded contradictory at times.
Like when he echoed his new owner’s desire to win now, and that Vegas “may have an opportunity here that other expansion teams didn’t to put a successful team on the ice quickly.”
And yet McPhee also said “to build a winner, it has to be through the entry draft.”
You had McPhee praising the way the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins played the game and were constructed, saying, “The one thing that helps you win the Cup is proper team construction, and then some young guys coming up and pushing them. That’s how Pittsburgh won.”
And yet McPhee also downplayed one of the other essential aspects of that Cup championship, which was the working partnership between GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan to tailor the roster to his tempo-setting system – thinking specifically of trades for Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, as well as the ascension of Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary into forward spots.
But McPhee prefers to give the coach the general manager’s players. As he said when asked about naming a coach before the expansion draft next summer: “When it comes to coaching, and input on players, the relationship always works best when the coach works with the players that you have. You give him the players, he works with them.”
McPhee’s history with head coaches is not his best; outside of failing to win anything above a division title and trading Filip Forsberg for a trifling malcontent, it might be the single worst thing about his Capitals legacy.
It started strong with Ron Wilson, who was neatly in sync with McPhee. (Keep that in mind for the future, by the way.) Then came Bruce Cassidy, with no NHL head coaching experience, and he lasted 110 games before losing the team. Then came Glen Hanlon, with no NHL head coaching experience, and he lasted 239 games before losing the team. Then came Bruce Boudreau, whose interim-basis hiring was pushed to full-time status as began a 329-game run of division titles and a coach of the year award. He didn’t have any NHL head coaching experience, either, and neither did the guy who replaced him when he lost the team: Dale Hunter, Capitals icon and junior hockey coach, who left the team after 60 games.
In 2012, the Capitals were at a crossroads. While we’ve never heard definitively how it went down, this is what we’ve always heard: That McPhee was down to two coaches, and to the surprise of no one neither had NHL head coaching experience. He preferred Jon Cooper of the AHL Norfolk Admirals, who is now on track to challenge for a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the next several years. Ownership and upper management preferred former Capitals center Adam Oates, an assistant with the New Jersey Devils, who would eventually become the last coach McPhee would hire.
Which brings us to what McPhee himself said was his greatest lesson from his previous experiences.
“If there are lessons to be learned … I really think communication with ownership is the key,” he said. “I hope for a terrific relationship with Bill. I tell him what I think. He’ll tell me what he thinks. And that’s the only way to do it. I’m going to pay attention to that.”
Foley agreed, actually, saying that finding a general manager with whom he could have a “symbiotic relationship” was paramount, and that their quick rapport was a deciding factor in McPhee’s hiring.
“Age wise and communication wise, George was a little bit closer to me than some of the other candidates,” said Foley. “George had all the components we were looking for to bring a Stanley Cup to Las Vegas.”
Ah, yes. The Stanley Cup.
McPhee chased one in Washington for 17 years, through a Cup Final loss and through the Jagr years and through the rebuild with Alex Ovechkin and through the team’s run of regular-season dominance punctured by postseason disappointment.
It felt like a lifetime for McPhee. And now, as Vegas can do, he’s won a chance as a new one.
“The second time around, you’re better. In coaching or in managing. There are a bunch of GMs in this business that have gone from one place [to another place] and won a Cup,” he said.
“I want to be one of those guys.”