Two days after he was told he wouldn’t be returning next season as general manager, George McPhee remains as steadfast as he’s ever been in the belief that the Washington Capitals are equipped to reach the Stanley Cup finals “sometime in the next three years.”
That he won’t be the one to guide them to that goal is disappointing, McPhee acknowledged during a news conference Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. But after 17 years as the architect in Washington, he opted to not dwell on what went wrong along the way.
“I signed up for it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or not. It doesn’t matter,” said McPhee, 55. “I refuse to be bitter about anything and I’m not going to look back and I blame no one. I was the manager. I did the best I could. I’m going to look back at all the good things we did, and that’s how we’re going to proceed.”
The Capitals reached the playoffs 10 times in McPhee’s 16 seasons at the helm but only advanced beyond the second round once, in his first year on the job in 1998. His inability to help the team over that hurdle ultimately cost him his job, but McPhee didn’t try to deflect responsibility for the team’s shortcomings on anyone else. He also declined to answer specific questions about Alex Ovechkin and recently fired coach Adam Oates.
But McPhee, who was overwhelmingly positive and joked at his own expense — saying “fire away” to prompt questions from reporters — did offer some reflection on the path the Capitals followed in recent years.
Beginning in 2007-08, when Washington made the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 lockout, McPhee said he saw a five-year window in which the team “really had an opportunity to win a Cup. We were legit.”
These last two seasons, however, he knew the Capitals didn’t have the organizational depth to withstand many injuries and thought a lengthy playoff run would be difficult. He views former coach Dale Hunter’s resignation in 2012 as a pivotal juncture.
“Re-setting after that, getting a new coach, I just thought we were a little thin on players coming into the system,” McPhee said, explaining that all those trade deadline deals to bolster the roster in 2008, 2010 and 2011 had impact even off the ice. In those three years combined, McPhee added nine players at the trade deadline and parted with six draft picks, including four second-rounders.
“When you think you can win a Cup, you owe it to the players in the room and all your fans, you’ve got to go for it,” McPhee said. “So I was trading second-round picks and prospects, second-round picks and prospects, and at some point you get a touch thin. Doesn’t mean we weren’t good teams the last two years, we just weren’t injury proof.”
When he met with owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick on Thursday, McPhee told them what he thought the Capitals needed to move forward. While he wouldn’t go into detail publicly, those elements aren’t difficult to guess: Restocking the depth, adding some top-four defensive help and bolstering the lineup at center.
In McPhee’s opinion, the Capitals don’t need an overhaul this summer to become a true championship contender.
“This team right now, if nothing is done, just with the kids we have and the veterans, is a playoff team,” McPhee said. “If a couple things are done, it’s a Cup team. There isn’t much to fix. And it’s a pretty easy fix.”
Well-respected around the league, McPhee may not be out of work long and he expressed a desire to jump right back into managing if the right opportunity arises.
Vancouver, the only other NHL team currently looking for a general manager, is where he started his front-office career, spending five years (1992-97) as vice president and director of hockey operations with the Canucks. He could also take a different role, but his contract doesn’t expire until July 1, meaning that until then any teams considering bringing him aboard must first obtain permission from Capitals ownership to speak with him.
Wherever McPhee does land, he is confident Washington is poised to claim a spot at the top of the NHL once more. “I really believe where this club’s going to be — it starts next year again — it’s going to win a Cup,” McPhee said. “You’ve got experienced players with young guys coming in. It’s the perfect combination. That’s what you need. It’s not about free agents and everything else. It’s a good group of solid veteran players plus young kids coming in to push up from the bottom, and that’s where I think this team is. They may not have done it in phase one but phase two is right there and they’re going to be good.”