George McPhee flew to Boston on Thursday. He could have watched the Washington Capitals from home, letting the exhaustion of the recent trade deadline dissipate: two days, three deals done, others that got away. But he has done this enough, 17 years now, that he knows when he must lay his own eyes on the team he created, even if occasionally it makes him cringe.
“There are times when you just have to be with the troops,” McPhee said Friday afternoon. “And I couldn’t stay away.”
McPhee had spent the previous four or five days wholeheartedly trying to make the Capitals a better team, even if by degrees that don’t fully satisfy a fan base now replete with expectations. Four years ago, the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best regular season record; currently, they’re scrambling just to make the playoffs.
The toll this takes on a soul and a psyche isn’t quantifiable, though maybe the heartburn is. Given the Capitals’ place in the NHL landscape, the focus on McPhee and his job, on moves both made and unmade, is likely unprecedented in Washington.
So start by making two things clear: First, McPhee believes the troops he went to visit — the troops who dropped their third straight game at a time when three straight losses are debilitating — were helped by adding forward Dustin Penner and goaltender Jaroslav Halak just before the deadline. Moreover, so was the entire organization.
“You know when you’ve done a good job, and you know when you haven’t,” McPhee said during a lengthy phone conversation Friday. “It’s a visceral thing. As a manager, you wake up at 2 in the morning. When you have those instances where you feel like you didn’t help your team, it’s hard. It’s in the memory bank, and it’s hard to get over. But we felt this year that we did a lot of things well.”
Second, McPhee believes this team, when healthy, can contend for a — don’t say it, don’t say it — Stanley Cup.
“We feel, today, that if we can ever get everybody in at once, it’s a pretty good hockey team,” he said. “That’s what’s been unfortunate; we just can’t get a healthy team. . . . But if we can get it together, we like this group. It’s a pretty good group. And if it makes the playoffs, there are going to be teams that don’t want to play us.”
Here is the list of NHL general managers who have held their current jobs longer than McPhee: Lou Lamoriello, hired by the New Jersey Devils in 1987, and Jim Rutherford, hired by the Hartford Whalers in 1994, before the franchise moved to Carolina. Considering the demands and volatility involved in these jobs, that’s a hockey lifetime. Some would say more. Since the Capitals’ playoff streak began in 2008 — a streak of six seasons that is currently outdone only by Detroit (22), San Jose (nine) and Pittsburgh (seven) — more than half the NHL teams have changed general managers.
So the machinations behind and results of any organizational red-letter day — the draft, the trade deadline, the opening of free agency — by now fall back on McPhee. He is in the last year of his contract. His detractors would point out, quite loudly, that all those seasons have not yielded a Cup. Since he took over the Capitals, 11 franchises have won one. The Capitals reached the finals for the only time in franchise history in his first season, and haven’t advanced to the conference finals since.
Asking McPhee about his future is simply futile. When the spotlight falls to him, he squints, holds his hand over his eyes and heads to the corner, searching for shadows. A sample answer to that question Friday: “Uh, well . . .” But get him talking about how he sees the trade deadline, for instance, and there are clues.
“First of all, it’s always organization first,” McPhee said. “It’s what’s best for the organization. Has to be. It can’t be about you. It can’t be about an individual.”
If there’s a measure of McPhee’s security in the only general manager job he’s ever held, it is right there. Clearly, he believes the trades he made improved the Capitals for the here and now. But these moves also were made for the organization’s future. They freed salary cap space for summer’s free agency. They returned a 23-year-old forward, Chris Brown, “who we really like,” but isn’t likely a major contributor this spring. They brought back a third-round draft choice in the 2015 draft, which McPhee and his team preferred over a second-rounder this year because they felt that draft is considerably deeper.
This doesn’t appear to be a guy making moves to save his job.
All of this talk is the kind of stuff that can make fans emotional. McPhee knows that. Yet: “You’re trying to come up with the process that takes emotion out of the decision and be more analytical,” he said.
His analysis for this week: The Capitals got better at the trade deadline. And they got there because the only general manager they have had for a hockey lifetime believes in his process and his people. If he is fighting for his professional life, he is hiding it awfully well.