Can Capitals GM George McPhee survive his oft-repeated turn in the hot seat?

Mike Wise
Columnist March 28

“Multiple sources confirm that Capital boss George McPhee is on the hot seat.”

hockeyrodent.com, circa . . . 2003

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Seriously, I looked it up.

McPhee also was on the “hot seat” in 2002, according to a, uh, reliable Washington Post report. In 2007 a Baltimore TV station claimed “Caps GM George McPhee is squarely on the hot seat,” which sounds so scorching.

There was also this ominous warning just 14 months ago from Japers’ Rink: “His 15th season could also be his last.”

Boy, we sure know how to read Ted Leonsis like a cheap novel.

Since he was hired to build the Washington Capitals into a Stanley Cup champion in 1997, McPhee has outlasted every NHL architect but Lou Lamoriello (27 years in New Jersey) and Carolina’s Jim Rutherford (20 years), who have won a combined four Cups compared to McPhee’s none.

Either the Caps’ general manager is the most resilient of hockey survivors, or Mr. Fire and Ice was really never in danger; there was no hot seat.

“I never do anything in business and competitiveness out of liking somebody,” Leonsis said when I asked him about his decade-and-a-half relationship with McPhee during a wide-ranging meeting with Post writers and editors before the season. “And so my loyalty has been purely around metrics. You look at the numbers. You look at where he ranks as a GM. But he doesn’t have something on his résumé — nor do I.

“Ultimately that will be defining in what our relationship is. I’ll really like him — I’ll love George — if we win a Stanley Cup. And if we don’t, it’s not a lifetime, guaranteed appointment for anybody. I don’t have an affection for him. We don’t go on family vacations and stuff together. I respect that he moved the team up.”

Yet these days, the metrics are not looking good. In danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007 with nine games remaining in the regular season, the Caps can no longer be viewed as a Cup contender. They don’t even resemble one of the 10 best teams in the NHL. They are a middling bunch of two stars in their prime, young, green defensemen and an annual cut-and-paste club on its 10th goalie in seven seasons.

It’s not that their great players are fading. Alex Ovechkin is going to score more goals than anyone in pro hockey this season and Nicklas Backstrom is an extraordinary playmaking center with the third-most assists in the NHL. But the supporting cast isn’t strong enough.

So is this finally it for McPhee? Leonsis won’t say until after the season. You have to go back to late last fall to read the tea leaves:

“The Caps have one of the best records in the NHL over the last decade,” Leonsis said then. “And George has executed what we’ve asked for except for not going deeper into the playoffs and winning a Stanley Cup. So you have to look critically at the body of work and then say, ‘Is this what the issue is? If I terminate and make a change, will I get better or will I get worse?’ And in that equation, I’ve been satisfied with where we’re are.

“But as I said, I don’t have unlimited patience. And at some point you have to change it up. So, I mean we’ve fired executives and we’ve fired coaches. I just haven’t done that at the GM spot with the Caps.”

McPhee is unsigned for next season. His supporters contend this is still a relatively young team with upside. While he didn’t get that tough blue-liner many NHL teams sought at the trade deadline, McPhee freed up salary cap space so he can re-sign center Mikhail Grabovski and go after veteran defensive help in the offseason.

But how long can an owner wait before he pulls the plug on his decision-maker, before he offers up a sacrificial lamb to frustrated season-ticket holders, thinking hard on whether to renew?

“One thing that’s happened to me personally — which I don’t know if that’s good or not — I don’t get as much joy any more when we win, and I feel way more pain when we lose,” Leonsis said. “I’m now in the hate-losing more than the love-winning. . . . I don’t like losing. When we lose in the playoffs, it really sticks with me for a long time.”

If the Capitals fall short of bringing Leonsis at least two profitable home postseason series this year, he might have little choice but to start over with a new front office. I’m not endorsing McPhee’s firing, especially just to appease angry fans.

I am saying 16 years is an incredibly long time to run a pro team. Outside the NHL, just Pat Riley with the Miami Heat and Brian Sabean of the San Francisco Giants (two more GMs with titles) have more tenure with one franchise than McPhee in all major North American sports.

Here’s hoping this underwhelming roster battling pulls and assorted pains can siphon a magical run that lasts into late May. Otherwise, the data and metrics are there in plain sight. This team will not be closer to a Cup now than it was three, four, even two years ago.

And if McPhee is finally jettisoned, the irony will be cruel. He will have lost his job in part because he could never acquire enough mentally tough, give-no-quarter players, guys like a former, scrap-till-he-dropped Ranger and Devil named . . . George McPhee.

Hot seat or no, that burns just thinking about it.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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