Washington Capitals, 1997-present
Southeast Division Titles, 1999-2001, 2007-2011
President’s Trophy, 2009-2010
Playoff Appearances: 1998, 2000-2001, 2003, 2008-2012
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1998
Washington Caps GM George McPhee has had a star-crossed career in the NHL. Ever since the opening thrill of managing the Caps to their sole Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1998 his tenure has faced several cross-checks and body-blocks along the way.
Still, despite these setbacks, McPhee has persevered. According to my rating system, McPhee ranks eighth among all active NHL GMs in career value (between Vancouver’s Mike Gillis and Pete Chiarelli) and 11th in Average Season Rating between (Toronto’s David Nonis and Jay Feaster).
However, given the sub-par performance of the Caps during this present season, McPhee’s value and ASR will decline sharply unless something is done to stop the slide?
Indeed it is McPhee’s pitfalls that kept him from standing even higher in the pantheon of NHL general managers. According to my rating system, McPhee was only the 16th best GM of the 2000s (between Mike O’Connell and Bryan Murray). He has fared slightly better during the 2010s where he is tied for fifth with Doug Wilson and Dean Lombardi but, again, if the Caps cannot escape the doldrums of this present season then McPhee’s standing faces serious decline. Furthermore his standing among NHL General Managers during the 21st century is not spectacular. My rating system places him 18th in terms of value (between Philadelphia’s Paul Holmgren and Phoenix’s Don Maloney).
George McPhee was born in Canada but went to college and played NCAA hockey at Bowling Green University (where he excelled). He was undrafted in 1982 but was able to sign with the New York Rangers as a free-agent and played seven seasons in the NHL with the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils before retiring in 1989.
While he played with the Devils McPhee worked on attaining a law degree and did so well that he interned at the U.S. Court of International Trade in 1991.
In 1992 McPhee returned to hockey when he joined the Vancouver Canucks and served under then Canucks GM Pat Quinn as vice president for hockey operations.
These were heady years for McPhee because the Canucks were contenders and Stanley Cup finalists in 1994. When Washington Caps GM David Poile left Washington to become GM of the Nashville Predators the Caps looked no further than George McPhee.
One of his first acts was to hire Ron Wilson as head coach after Wilson had been let go by Anaheim. Wilson did what the Murray brothers (Bryan and Terry) could not do: lead the Caps to the Stanley Cup finals. McPhee enjoyed the rarified air of the Summit for only four games. After 1998 McPhee has endured eight playoff appearances without reaching the finals.
The Caps have won six Southeast Division titles and the President’s trophy in 2009/10 but playoff success remains the cross that George McPhee has to bear; five of his eight playoff berths have resulted in first-round eliminations.
It’s not that the talent is lacking. George McPhee has proven his worth as ivory-trader. He drafted Alexander Semin in 2002; Nicklas Backstrom in 2006; John Carlson and Braden Holtby in 2008; and Marcus Johansson in 2009; and yet his greatest draft has to be in 2004 when he selected Alexander Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz, and Mike Green. All three men are on the Caps roster today but it is the selection of Ovechkin that has made and broken the franchise.
The Caps (McPhee’s) fortunes have risen and fallen in accordance to the whims of Alexander the Great. On the one hand there is Number Eight’s inestimable point-producing skills; on the other there is the maddening inability (or perhaps refusal?) to lift the team up to the heights its belongs to; to be the metaphysical glue that keeps the team jelled and coalesced; to be the inspiring force that galvanizes teammates and makes Stanley Cup champions.
Since 2005, three Caps coaches: Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, and Dale Hunter have tried to solve the conundrum of Alexander O—without success.
The departure of Dale Hunter is perhaps the most poignant of all.
Hunter demanded—and got—a balanced tactical approach to hockey and accountability. Even though the Caps did not win the Southeast Division title they came closer than they ever have since 1998 in reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Had it not been for Joel Ward’s costly and untimely hi-sticking double minor in game five of the conference semifinals (which resulted in two power play goals by the Rangers that tied and won the game in overtime) then the Caps saga might be different today.
Instead the heart-breaking playoff defeat led to Hunter’s resignation (or was he pushed?)—and the loss of a good coach with ample NHL potential.
Since then the Caps have thrashed about inconsistently under rookie head coach Adam Oates. The team started off horribly and only now has started to put wins together (winning seven of their last ten games) but given the quality of talent this team’s possesses, a 9-11-1 record is a disgrace. The team has played shoddy, sloppy hockey. Lockout or no lockout, this season (right now) must be seen as a disappointment for the Caps and George McPhee.
If Washington ultimately fails to play up to its potential then it’s clear that the team’s (and George McPhee’s) value will fall dramatically. Washington is standing at the crossroads, trying desperately to flag a ride.
(My next column will feature Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis).