- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

Patience is in short supply in professional sports these days. Teams want to win and they want to win now, and they'll do just about anything to make it happen. The result? A lot of wheel spinning or worse.

We were reminded of this during NBA All-Star week, when Abe Pollin said he regretted trading Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace. And why did the Wizards trade them? Because they lacked the patience to deal with two immature players who had left college early. They just didn't want to wait for Webber and Wallace to grow up assuming, of course, they ever did.

And so the Wizards are 12-38 this morning and scraping bottom in the Atlantic Division, and Webber and Wallace are All-Stars in the Western Conference. Moral: It pays to have patience if you know when to apply it.

Which brings us to the subject of today's column: George McPhee. The Capitals' general manager recently pulled off the coup of the local sports year by re-signing Peter Bondra, who had told the club at the beginning of the season he wanted to be traded. And how did McPhee manage it? By being patient. By not listening to people like me, who said back in October that the Caps should "unload [Bondra] now … [and] get on with their lives."

I was concerned mostly with Bonzai's effect on team chemistry. It just didn't seem to be a good idea to keep a guy around, a guy in the last year of his contract, who preferred to be somewhere else. He's going to be an unrestricted free agent after the season anyway, I figured, so why not start looking to the future now?

But McPhee was in no rush, even when the Caps won only three of their first 17 games. He talked to other teams, none of which was offering much for Bondra, but mostly he just bided his time. After all, there was always the chance Peter would have a big year and change his mind about wanting to leave. He had scored 52 goals in Ron Wilson's first season as coach (in '97, tying his career high). Maybe he would see that it wasn't the system that was holding him back, that the reasons for his scoring decline the past two years lay elsewhere (e.g. injuries, uninspired play).

Sure enough, that's what happened. Bondra got off to a strong start and suddenly began to realize that, hey, maybe I can still be happy here. At that point McPhee began serious negotiations with Bonzai's agent, and pretty soon a deal one that would keep the right winger in Washington until 2005 was struck. Now the Caps are in first place in the Southeast Division and finishing up one of their best West Coast trips ever. And Bondra is on a 47-goal pace and in position to win his third league goal-scoring title.

"It was a matter of creating the right environment for [Peter] and being patient," McPhee said the other day.

Patience may be McPhee's foremost virtue. He didn't panic when the Caps struggled early this season. He didn't panic when they struggled early last season. He didn't panic when they failed to make the playoffs the season before after going to the Stanley Cup finals in '98. He puts together a team, and he sticks by it.

It's a far cry from the David Poile era. Poile was much more of a tinkerer; he was always stirring up the pot. When the Caps started slowly in '83, he traded Brian Engblom and Ken Houston for Larry Murphy. When they started slowly in '86, he traded Bob Carpenter for Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley. When they started slowly in '91, he traded Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse for Al Iafrate. When they started slowly in '96, he traded Keith Jones and a first-round pick for Chris Simon and Curtis Leschyshyn (who was subsequently traded for Andrei Nikolishin).

Poile also made some major moves at the trading deadline the Jim Carey deal, the Mike Gartner deal, the Iafrate-for-Joe Juneau deal, the Clint Malarchuk-for-Calle Johansson deal. Looking back, there weren't too many seasons when David stood pat.

McPhee's management style is much different. He isn't a wheeler, and he's even less of a dealer. In four years with the Caps, he hasn't made a single blockbuster trade. He swapped Sylvain Cote for Jeff Brown just before the '98 playoffs and auctioned off Juneau (a free-agent-to-be), Dale Hunter (who was retiring) and Craig Berube at the '99 deadline, but that's about it. The roster has been remarkably stable during his tenure.

And now he's being patient or trying to be with Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis, a couple of talented kids who are taking their sweet time developing. The jury is still out on Bulis, but Zed may finally be coming around, if his play during the team's 5-0-2 unbeaten streak before last night is any indication. The last thing you want to do is trade one of them and have him put it all together for somebody else. The Wizards had that happen with Webber and Wallace, and they're still recovering.

Sometimes it takes more guts to be patient with a player than to get rid of him. Sometimes slow and steady does win the race. McPhee obviously realizes this, and the Caps are the better for it.

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