It wasn’t too long ago that Caps fans had little hope of playoff appearances, let alone deep runs. There were times when a 10,000 person attendence was considered a good turnout. The Caps have now sold out their last two seasons, and likely will again this year. One man was primarily responsible for their turnaround, and his name is George McPhee.
McPhee didn’t always spend his days in a suit. A prominent player at Bowling Green State University, he was awarded the Hobey Baker Award in 1982 for college’s top player. After being a standout player throughout his entire college career, McPhee had a seven-year stay in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers.
McPhee began his front office days with the Vancouver Canucks where he held the position of vice president and director of hockey operations while assisting then general manager Pat Quinn. The Canucks made the playoffs four times, won a division championship and made it to the ’94 Cup Finals (where they fell to the Rangers) while McPhee was with the team.
GMGM came to the Capitals in 1997, looking to turn around the team’s reputation to playing well in the regular season only to collapse in the playoffs (sound familiar?). His first year with the team was a great success as the Caps beat almost everyone’s expectations and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals (where they were expectedly swept by Detroit). The team would also go on to win back-to-back Southeast Divison championships in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001.
After trying to improve by throwing money at free agents, in the 2003-2004 season McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis decided to do something bold: a fire sale. Generally, this wouldn’t be a bold move. However, the Capitals made the playoffs in 2003, and they weren’t in the basement of the standings when they shipped off the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, and Peter Bondra in exchange for young talent and draft picks.
This drove the team to the bottom of the rankings, and therefore the top of the draft order. The Caps used these picks to get players like Mike Green and Jeff Schultz while using their own picks to draft players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
McPhee not only was able to draft a young core while the Capitals had high draft picks, but their drafting has continued to gather blue-chip propects with the lower picks that come with success. Players like defenseman John Carlson, center Marcus Johansson, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov were all taken late in the first round, while the Caps scouting staff seemed to have found a 6th round gem in Mathieu Perreault.
McPhee has rebuilt this team from the ground up by protecting draft picks and prospects, and developing them within the organization. Needs are looked to be filled in-house first, as was evident when Bruce Boudreau (then coach of the AHL affiliate Hershey Bears) was called on to replace Glen Hanlon as head coach.
This team has risen not only to the top of the conference, but the top of the league under McPhee’s hand. It is now a team that is consistently in the running to win the Stanley Cup, and a team that others hate to play against. Before we go crazy saying management needs an overhaul, just remember where this management had brought this team, and that it so elite status. The Caps are on the verge of a Cup (and unless something drastically changes, they will be for seasons to come) because of George McPhee.