Monday afternoon, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee sat down with editors and reporters from The Washington Times for a Newsmaker story featured on A1 of Friday’s paper and here. Some portions of the interview are being held for future stories, but here’s Part I of a word-for-word look at the conversation. Questions throughout were asked by Stephen Whyno, Mike Harris, Nathan Fenno, Chris Dolan and Ed Kelley.
Q: From a big-picture standpoint when this team was struggling before the lockout and you traded veterans away and rebuilt this team – the thought process of that was obviously to try to get to a winning team. But what were you trying to get rid of and change at that time, and is this team what you envisioned when you did that?
George McPhee: Well, what were trying to do was get ready for the new collective bargaining agreement and how that would affect the NHL, because it seemed like we were in for a long lockout and that a hard cap was going to come into the league. And we were looking forward to that, because we wanted a level playing field with other clubs. We didn’t have it at the time. There was some clubs in the league spending $80-90 million on players. And we were being told by the league that the cap was going to be pretty strict and it wasn’t going to be very high, initially. So we had to move some contracts to comply. We were a playoff team when we decided to tear it down, that was what was unique about that. We had made the playoffs, we lost in the first round. It isn’t very often that you make the playoffs and then tear it all down. So we did that hoping we’d have a good, young team coming out of the lockout and that would be able to work under the cap and be competitive. And it’s worked. It’s not very often that it works. That’s also one of the unique things: You can tear things down and start over, but there’s a lot of risk in that. Because if you tear things down and start over and it doesn’t work, now your franchise is in trouble. Who’s going to buy tickets? Who’s going to want to watch you on TV? And who’s going to write about you? While it sounds like a nice thing to try in theory, when you’re actually doing it, it’s not easy and it better work. And we’re fortunate that it worked.
Q: Now that it has worked and now that you have the budget to be one of those teams that spends up to the cap, how has the approach changed for you in what kind of players you want to bring into the organization – or has it changed?
McPhee: The plan hasn’t changed a whole lot in terms of players – you’re trying to draft and trade for and sign in free agency the best players you can get. And we’ve been drafting really well lately. That’s the lifeblood of your club, so you’ve got to be doing that if you want to have a good club. Things change slightly, if you’ve got a good team and you want to make it better, sometimes you do things a little bit different. I think the draft this summer was a good example of that. It didn’t look like a good draft, and the more we went through it and the more mock drafts we had, the more we realized that what might be sitting there when we’re picking this year is a third- or fourth-line player or a fifth or sixth defenseman. Even if they were that, they’re three or four years away from playing. So instead of drafting a young player and developing, we traded a pick for a proven veteran like [Troy] Brouwer. We may not have done that five years ago, but we did it this time because – again – my philosophy’s always been the same: in the first round you’ve got to swing for the fences. Get a difference-maker, not just a guy that’s going to play, but get a difference-maker and we didn’t see that in this draft.
Q: Do you see Brouwer being that type of player?
McPhee: He’s not necessarily a difference-maker, but he’s a proven player, who he’s 25 years old and he steps in now, vs. drafting a kid that might be a third- or fourth-line winger or might be a fifth or sixth D. But it’s 50/50. I don’t know if he’s going to play or not. And you never know when you make the pick. I just thought we should take the sure thing rather than taking another young player who would need to develop because we’ve got enough young players in the pipeline that it was OK to do this once. It’s not something I would do very often, but I thought we were on top of the draft pretty well, and talking to our pro scouts about Brouwer and talking to our amateur scouts about Brouwer, this was the right move to make.
Q: Is there a finite amount of time that you have to build a championship team, or is this something that you can roll over and be competitive for 10-15 years, in line with Mr. Leonsis’ idea of a generationally great team? Or is there a window that you guys have?
McPhee: I don’t think so. I know that’s been talked about, but I don’t look at it that way. I look at it that it’s my responsibility to put a good team on the ice every year – and a team that’s got a chance to win. And we’ve put very good teams on the ice; we think this is a very good team, and we expect to do it again next year. If you keep putting good teams on the ice, one of these years you’ll break through and win something. But I think managing to win in a certain window means that window’s going to close and you have to start all over again. And we’re not interested in doing that.
Q: Do you have to manage differently in order to win a championship? Is there a way to quantify how to win a championship, and are Brouwer and Vokoun steps toward that, or is it just trying to put a great team out there and hope things go right? How much of it is both of that?
McPhee: If you can put a team on the ice that knowledgable hockey people in the business outside of your organization can look at the team and say, ‘That team has a legitimate chance to win a Cup,’ then you’ve done your job. As long as you’re in that discussion, then you’ve done your job. Once the season gets going, you might have injuries and you sure need some luck in the playoffs, you need some breaks. There’s a randomness to our game that can hurt even the best of teams. So you need that. You look at Boston last year, at this time everybody said, ‘It’s a solid team.’ Does it have a chance to win a Cup? Maybe. But is it a favorite? No. But they played a solid game all year long, and then in the playoffs, they really got some luck going their way. They went to three Game 7s. In the first Game 7 in the first round, Montreal tied them with a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, Boston was back on its heels, wasn’t playing very well at all, tightening up. Montreal almost won it in the last minute of the game, and then they had the first four scoring chances in overtime. They were all over them. Boston hung on, they almost put the puck in their own net one time. And a little while later, they got one shot on net and it went in. And it changed everything. So if we’ve put a good team on the ice that people can say, ‘This team has a legitimate chance,’ that’s the best you can do. And this team has that chance.
Q: You have put a good team on the ice, obviously, by the results. But you’ve been, as the organization has been, a little disappointed the way the playoffs has gone. How hard is it to stay that course and not blow it up and start over? Do you ever say, hey maybe this isn’t working?
McPhee: Not necessarily. And again, you can’t listen to the outside opinions too much. You have to have your own opinion and listen to your own inner voice and say, ‘How do we make this team better?’ And that’s the objective every year is to try and keep making it better. And there are different ways to do that. Sometimes you have a year where your team’s going to be a high-scoring club and there’ll be other years where you’re going to be a real good defensive club and I think that’s what we have this year. I think we’ve got terrific goaltending and we’ll be really good defensively. But only one team can win, and there are 29 teams every year that are disappointed. But if you’re among those top eight teams every year – usually you have to be in the top eight to win. That’s where we’ve been. And sure it’s disappointing when you lose, but you come right back at it and put another good team on the ice and cross your fingers and hope it works.