George McPhee spoke with reporters for more than 33 minutes Monday to discuss his dismissal and look back on the 17 years he spent guiding the Washington Capitals. Much of the conversation, understandably, centered on what led the team to miss the playoffs and dismiss its coach and general manager.
McPhee made it clear that he believes the Capitals aren’t far from truly contending for a Stanley Cup and while he no longer has a say in what style of play they will employ, it was interesting to hear how he thinks this group should proceed.
“What sells tickets is entertaining hockey and we’ve always tried to play that way. We play an exciting brand of hockey. Because I don’t think hockey should ever be boring,” McPhee said. “I think we can keep playing that style. What you just have to be mindful of is you have to look after the goal, after your own end. And we didn’t do that quite good enough this year, but that’s the way you win.
“You want teams that are fun to watch. And we were. You can’t teach people to score. You can teach them to defend and just a little bit more emphasis on protecting your end of the ice. It’s going to be a real good team.”
But then why did the Capitals change in the first place? There likely was some overreaction and over-correction to being eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs in 2010. But the goals started being harder to come by in the early stages of 2010-11. And, as McPhee reminded the assembled media, the Capitals pulled off the transition in the regular season, finishing first in the Eastern Conference with 107 points, a plus-27 goal differential and fourth in the league in goals allowed.
Upon reflection of that feat, McPhee praised former coach Bruce Boudreau, whose Ducks clinched a trip to the second round of the playoffs this week.
“He pulled it off,” McPhee said of Boudreau. “He played two different ways and continued to win. He’s an outstanding coach and a good guy.”
Even though Dale Hunter’s risk-averse, defense-at-all-costs approach got the Capitals to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2012, it was never the exuberant type of play McPhee preferred. (Nor was it going to be a long-term solution, given the Capitals’ personnel, including but not limited to Alex Ovechkin.)
So then they sought some sort of balance once again, with Adam Oates calling the shots. They never found it, winding up without a true on-ice identity for much of the past two seasons. Still, McPhee insisted that the constant coaching turnover and strategic changes didn’t result in a downward trend for the team.
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to be negative here. We missed the playoffs by three points for the first time in seven years. We’re doing something really well,” McPhee said. “Systems don’t matter a whole lot. That should be 10-15 percent of what you’re doing. That’s your foundation. It’s about coaching and making it work and our coaches have been making it work.”