George McPhee wasn’t talking about a five-year plan.
He didn’t claim that the building of a franchise has to work with the same timetable as the great pyramids of Egypt.
In fact, at his introduction as the founding GM of the currently unnamed Las Vegas expansion franchise team, McPhee laid out how he wants to work on a fast track.
Given the NHL’s plans for the expansion draft now on the table, McPhee maintained that the Las Vegas franchise has a chance to build “a real good team fast … an opportunity, that other teams didn’t have in the past, to get better quicker.”
That might be. McPhee hasn’t quite done it all in the NHL. He’s still looking for his first Stanley Cup ring. Nonetheless, McPhee’s done a lot more than most, from working in the league’s Manhattan offices, to working for Brian Burke in Vancouver and then for 17 years as the GM of the Washington Capitals. A quick chronological survey of his tenure:
1997: McPhee inherited a team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season calling the shots.
2004: He was the architect of one of the great teardowns — don’t say tank — in league history and, through a bit of lottery luck, landed the prize he sought, Alex Ovechkin, in the draft.
2008: From 2008 through to his dismissal in April of 2014, he managed one of the league’s most competitive teams and, for great stretches, the most entertaining show in the league on any given night.
Which is to say that McPhee’s bona fides weren’t just in order. They were everything an owner of an expansion franchise could ask for and probably too much to expect. And when McPhee talked about building “a real good team fast” it wasn’t false confidence talking nor sending out a message that he thought would play well with the man who hired him and introduced him Wednesday, Bill Foley.
He wasn’t asking for patience from 13,000 season-ticket holders in a market that has known minor-pro hockey as a cult interest but big sport only in boxing and poker. No, McPhee knows that he’ll have more available than teams in past expansion drafts.
McPhee also knows that even those teams shorted on entry were, if properly managed and a little bit lucky, capable of being “real good” in pretty short order.
Look at the Florida Panthers, who, in a rat-infested third season, made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Look at the Minnesota Wild who also made a deep run when they still had the new-car smell.
As much as McPhee was championing the idea of being competitive in the start-up he said the long-term prospects of the franchise will ride on the entry draft. And, with a pretty good case that only starts with Ovechkin, McPhee said that he has an established history of putting together good drafts — or, more properly, putting together scouting staffs that put together good drafts.
Okay, the trade of Filip Forsberg turned out to be a hurter — right draft pick but a gaffe in trading him to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. And there were a couple of other misses in the first round (not one NHL game between Anton Gustafsson and Sasha Pokulok).
Still, on balance, McPhee’s Caps did a great job overall and made a few risky picks that filled in straights — Evgeny Kuznetsov being the prime example of identifying a talent worth the signing issues.
Not many teams can claim to have drafted two NHL goaltenders in a single draft but McPhee’s Caps did with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Or getting a Vezina winner in the fourth round a couple of years later, Braden Holtby.
McPhee did send out messages that his owner and hockey fans in Vegas wanted to hear.
He talked about putting together a team that will “play a brand of hockey that people will enjoy.” He talked about admiring the high-tempo, high-pressure game that the Pittsburgh Penguins played en route to the Stanley Cup this spring.
It would be just empty talk, I suppose, except that his Capitals teams more often than not delivered on similar promises. For that reason (and not just the presence of Ovechkin), there’s a devoted fan base in Washington and that wasn’t the case when McPhee took the job there.
McPhee spent last season with the New York Islanders in an advisory capacity and at the press conference he suggested that maybe it was the best possible preparation he can have for the challenge ahead.
“[As a GM in the league] you can get locked in on your own team and you don’t know the league,” McPhee said.
This is to suggest that in his time with the Isles, McPhee had a chance to get to know the league better. Likewise the time that he spent working with Hockey Canada in putting together international squads has helped him build a better book on players that he would have otherwise seen only in passing.
While McPhee talked about the chance afforded to few GMs — taking on a startup, not being saddled with your predecessor’s worst decisions — his first challenge will be assembling a scouting staff. That is probably somewhat more difficult now in mid-July when scouts are signed in and around Canada Day.
McPhee had no names but scouts around the league suggest that a couple of prime candidates are Jeff Crisp, a veteran amateur scout who did not re-sign with the Anaheim Ducks, and Scott Luce, who put together a lot of great drafts for Florida before he was let go this spring in the Panthers’ regime change.
Luce’s contract situation might complicate a hiring and both he and Crisp are sure to have other suitors.
McPhee is no doubt right about the fact that the Las Vegas team can be “real good fast” but his challenge is to put together a scouting staff that can make that happen.
And that’s not a five-year plan. That’s not even a five-week plan.
Yeah, George McPhee is enjoying his honeymoon period with the franchise but it won’t last even as long as most honeymoons in Vegas. He’ll have the night off and work the phones starting Thursday — without another day off in probably a year.