When the Vegas Golden Knights visited the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Monday night, in what would turn into a 1-0 loss for the home team, Vegas President of Hockey Operations and former Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee was among those in attendance. McPhee joined former Caps defenseman Karl Alzner’s “Alz Caps” podcast and discussed a variety of topics.
During the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, McPhee (who began his time in Vegas as the team’s General Manager) selected defenseman Nate Schmidt from the Washington Capitals (now a member of the Winnipeg Jets) but also acquired players such as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins (now a member of the Chicago Blackhawks), William Karlsson, and Alex Tuch (now with the Buffalo Sabres), all who played a key role in the Golden Knights reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season, where they lost to the Capitals in five games.
“Well I’d have to say I’m really proud of all the things we did. I guess I’m most impressed with, is we didn’t feel like we missed anything. We really hired a terrific staff and we went to work right away with mock drafts and getting our guys to games, and meeting often and as we went through the process, we would have a few questions to ask of the league and got answers, and by the end of it, it was sort of like going into that final exam in whatever school you’re in, and knowing we’re nailing this. The one thing, and I don’t think many people were aware of this, what we were worried about was this massive redistribution of players right before we got to the expansion draft because we were talking to teams and thought players were going to be moving around. And we tried to get in the way of that, and what we did was, we thought there were 10 teams that we should do deals with and that should do deals with us to protect their assets. And with nine of them we got deals done and basically said, ‘You can’t do anything else. You can’t become a landing spot for another team because you’re protected, you can’t start adding players….and what it basically did was lock up the market”.
McPhee joined the Capitals as General Manager in 1997 and served in the position for 17 years, seeing the team through a rebuild in the mid-2000’s, in which he drafted players that helped return the Capitals to prominence such as current franchise cornerstones Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson, and past players such as Alex Semin, Mike Green, and Braden Holtby.
“First of all, one of the things you’re most proud of is hiring a guy like [Capitals Assistant General Manager and former Director of Amateur Scouting] Ross Mahoney who has just been lights out at the draft table, probably the best guy in the league, or Top 3. In the first five years, we weren’t having much luck so we changed everything in how we did things, but we didn’t change any people. Didn’t change any people, kept the same people but the process was different. With respect to that team, we had met the year before, Ted and Dick and I, about if it’s time to get ready for the future, what may be a salary cap. And two of the three of us didn’t want to do it because we were a playoff team. And we got together the next summer and two of the three were ready to move what we have and be transparent with our fans and go with the draft picks and young players and make trades, and so we did. I met with various teams in other leagues that dealt with salary cap and everything else and learned some lessons there and we did it, moved everybody”.
While the team drafted a few key core and role players in the years just before tearing down the team, the rebuild truly began with the selection of Ovechkin first overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, which also saw the Caps add another key player in Mike Green in the first-round. Over the years, the team would add other players such as Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Alzner himself, and more who would play a role in the Capitals’ becoming a perennial contender.
“Boy we did a heck of a job at drafting. Drafting is your lifeblood but you got to do more, you got to put the right veterans around young players, and we did that, and it’s turned out to be one heck of a hockey team ever since. In terms of tearing it all down and building it back up, we were looking forward to the opportunity to compete in the division because before the salary cap, if you’re up against good managers, and Bob Clarke was a good manager in Philadelphia and Neil Smith was a good manager in New York [Rangers], if they’ve got a good manager and they’re spending two or three times what you can spend, it’s quite an advantage for them. And I thought this would be an opportunity for people to earn their stripes and show their stripes in a more balanced way…and the Washington Capitals proved that good management can take you a long way in this league”.
By Michael Fleetwood