One year ago, George McPhee had a job as GM of the Vegas Golden Knights, but no players making up a pro roster. Now one of three finalists for the NHL’s GM of the Year Award, McPhee is being lauded for his work in putting together the most successful expansion franchise in North American sports history, which is now just four wins away from winning a Stanley Cup.
But while he’s no longer getting credit for any success by his former team McPhee, who was dismissed as GM of the Washington Capitals following the 2013-14 season, has his fingerprints all over that roster, too. More than 75 per cent of all players in this Cup final were put on their current rosters by McPhee. He’s responsible for drafting 12 members of the Capitals, and signing another. Most of the top players on this year’s Capitals were acquired by the former GM.
Here’s how the GM of the Vegas Golden Knights also built the team his is facing in the Stanley Cup Final:
Alex Ovechkin, drafted 1st overall in 2004: McPhee actually began with the Capitals in the 1996-97 season, in which the Capitals reached the Cup final. The team made the playoffs in three of the next six seasons, but didn’t win another series and decided to go into a rebuild during the 2003-04 season. The ensuing sell-off included shipping out stars Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra. The Caps finished with 23 wins and 59 points to finish third-last in the league, ahead of only Pittsburgh and Chicago.
The Capitals got lucky at the 2004 draft lottery, winning it and moving up to No. 1 overall. Ovechkin was the wire-to-wire expected No. 1 overall pick and can’t-miss prospect so his selection was the “reward” for rebooting. Ovechkin’s rookie season was delayed a year as the NHL and NHLPA lost a season to CBA arguments, but he won the Calder Trophy right away and scored at least 46 goals in each of his first three seasons. McPhee also signed Ovechkin to the 13-year, $124 million contract he’s still playing with through the 2020-21 season.
Nicklas Backstrom, drafted fourth overall in 2006: In the first season back from the lockout, Washington finished fourth-last with 29 wins and 70 points and didn’t move after the lottery. With Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews already off the board, McPhee went with the playmaking centre Backstrom at No. 4, passing over winger Phil Kessel who was at one point the top-ranked skater in this class. The next centre that went off the board after Backstrom was Derick Brassard to Columbus at No. 6. Backstrom returned to Sweden for another season with Brynas, then came to the NHL for good in 2007-08 and recorded 69 points as a rookie.
John Carlson, drafted 27th overall in 2008: In 2007-08 the Capitals got back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and were dismissed by the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1. But the fruits of the rebuild were starting to show as the Caps won their first division title of the salary cap era. Washington had two first-round picks this season, taking Anton Gustafsson 21st overall and defenceman John Carlson 27th. The former never reached the NHL, but the latter has been a big driver of offence and could be the most sought-after blue-liner on the UFA market this summer if the Caps don’t sign him first.
Carlson played one year of major junior after being drafted, then graduated to the pros by playing with the AHL’s Hershey Bears in 2009-10. He was allowed to leave and play for Team USA at the WJC that winter, too, and scored the gold medal-winning goal against Canada. After returning, he played most of the rest of the season in the NHL and even got into seven Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Braden Holtby, drafted 93rd overall in 2008: After getting one NHL player with his first four picks, McPhee hit a home run with his fourth-rounder in 2008. Two goaltenders were chosen in the first round of this draft, neither of whom made it to the NHL on a full-time basis, and Holtby was the 10th goalie off the board — only Jake Allen and Jacob Markstrom ahead of him became starters.
A late birthday, Holtby barely missed the cut off for the 2007 draft. He returned to junior for one season before moving to the Hershey Bears, where he spent most of the next four seasons. Since reaching the NHL, though, Holtby wrestled the starting job away from a variety of other challengers including Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and has become one of the best goalies in the league. Over the past three playoffs, Holtby has the third-best combined save percentage in the NHL.
Dimitri Orlov, drafted 55th overall in 2009: The Capitals won their second conescutive regular season division title this season and got past the first round for the first time in a decade. The team picked Marcus Johansson with their first-round pick and he was on the team until last summer, when he was traded to New Jersey. With their second-round pick the Caps took Dimitri Orlov out of the KHL, where he returned for another two seasons after.
Orlov has seen some very gradual development since arriving in North America and is now an all-situations defender for Washington, averaging 24:32 per game in these playoffs. It’s also worth noting the third player McPhee took in this draft, Cody Eakin, is on the Golden Knights now by way of the Dallas Stars.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, drafted 26th overall in 2010: When the Caps took Kuznetsov they knew he wasn’t going to come to North America right away because he had another two years left on his contract with the KHL’s Chelyabinsk. Who knows how many teams were scared off by that fact: Riley Sheahan, Jarred Tinordi, Mark Pysyk, Kevin Hayes and Quinton Howden were the five players picked just before him.
Washington actually wouldn’t get him for nearly another four seasons as he finally arrived at the end of the 2013-14 season and scored nine points in 17 games. He had his breakout 77-point season in 2015-16 and, this year, is making a bid for the Conn Smythe.
Philipp Grubauer, drafted 112th overall in 2010: There were two goalies drafted in the first round in 2010 as well, neither of whom have stuck in the NHL as starters. Grubauer was the ninth goalie off the board and is the only one of those who was a full-time NHLer this season (Frederik Andersen, chosen in the seventh round, is the best netminder from this class). McPhee actually could have chosen Grubauer at the expansion draft, but elected to go with defenceman Nate Schmidt instead.
The 26-year-old Grubauer was pushing Holtby for starts this season and was the guy coach Barry Trotz turned to at the start of the playoffs. An RFA this summer, it won’t be long before he’s an NHL starter.
Travis Boyd, 177th overall in 2011: The Caps won their fourth consecutive division title this season and didn’t make any picks until the fourth round. In Round 6 they got Boyd out of the USNTDP and he just arrived in the NHL this season with eight regular season appearances. The 24-year-old has just one playoff game under his belt, which came against Pittsburgh.
Tom Wilson, 16th overall in 2012: Wilson was actually the second of two first-round picks the Caps made at this draft, though it wasn’t long before McPhee dealt 11th-overall pick Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat in one of the worst trades in NHL history. The Caps scooped the big-bodied Wilson at No. 16 after a 27-point season that also came with 141 penalty minutes.
Wilson went back to junior the following season and was much better, posting 58 points and just 104 penalty minutes in 48 games. The bruiser even earned an NHL call-up at the end of that season and got into three playoff games. Wilson was in the NHL the following season and hasn’t looked back. The three players taken after Wilson were Tomas Hertl, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Chandler Stephenson, drafted 77th overall in 2012: After picking twice in Round 1, the Caps didn’t pick again until Round 3 and scooped Chandler Stephenson out of the Regina Pats organization. He returned to the WHL for a couple more seasons and spent a few more seasoning in the AHL, so Stephenson didn’t arrive at the NHL level until McPhee had been replaced. This was his first full season in the NHL, posting six goals and 18 points in a bottom-six checking role. Stephenson is averaging 2:00 of shorthanded ice time per game in the playoffs.
Christian Djoos, drafted 195th overall 2012: Washington made four picks between Stephenson and Christian Djoos, the son of former NHLer Par. Christian returned to Sweden for another two years after being drafted and spent a full two seasons in the AHL before finally arriving as a full-time NHLer just this season. The 23-year-old is on the team hoping he latches on to more minutes through this transition — he averaged 14:02 per game in the regular season and just 11:13 in the post-season.
Andre Burakovsky, drafted 23rd overall in 2013: After winning their fifth division title in six years the Caps picked late in the first round again even though they were eliminated by the Rangers in Round 1. This was the final draft McPhee oversaw for the Capitals as he was dismissed less than a year later after Washington missed the playoffs.
But at No. 23 they grabbed Austrian Andre Burakovsky out of the Swedish League, recognized as a shooter and a goal scorer. He came to North America the following season and scored 41 goals on Connor McDavid’s Erie Otters. Following that, Burakovsky joined the Capitals and though he hasn’t reached 20 goals yet in a season, the future still projects brightly for the 23-year-old. He scored twice in Washington’s Game 7 win over Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final.
Jay Beagle, signed in 2008: Undrafted and unsigned, McPhee found Jay Beagle out of the University of Alaska-Anchorage program and got him under contract on March 26, 2008. He arrived full-time in the NHL in 2011-12 and has been a beloved checker ever since. Beagle is far and away the most-used Caps forward on the penalty kill and averaged the 18th-most PK minutes among any forward league-wide.