- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

Eleven years ago, George McPhee was in charge of the Washington Capitals as they reached the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Finals.

But it wasn’t his team.

“That was David Poile’s team and Jack Button’s team,” McPhee said. “We arranged the furniture a little bit, but there were a lot of good decisions made before we got here.”

The Capitals team that begins its Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, however, is McPhee’s team. The general manager and his staff have acquired every player on the roster that on Tuesday earned the Caps’ first postseason series victory since the 1998 run.

Following the Cup appearance, the Caps endured four first-round exits and the painful rebuilding process that started with drafting Alex Ovechkin in 2004. The 20 skaters expected to dress Saturday are a mix: Seven were acquired in trades, seven were drafted and six were signed as free agents.

“Being able to build your own team that plays the way it does, wins the division, wins a playoff [series] - it certainly makes a manager feel better,” McPhee said.

What really makes McPhee feel better is to see the Caps’ playoff drought end. The days of playing in front of a half-full Verizon Center and missing the postseason are a distant memory, replaced by raucous crowds and Ovechkin, the world’s most exciting player.

“Sometimes you have to win that Cup to establish a foothold in a market, like Long Island or Carolina,” McPhee said. “Every once in a while, you have a market, like San Jose, that turns out to be great without winning a Cup. We thought if we could keep doing the right things, we could get to this point. We’ve done enough things well enough and enough good things have happened [that] this has turned into a very good hockey market.”

McPhee was conservative this year by not trading for outside talent, almost the same approach he took during his first year with the Caps. During the 1998 stretch run, McPhee added role players Esa Tikkanen, Brian Bellows and Jeff Brown, but the core remained intact from the Poile regime.

Those moves were a lot more than what McPhee did at this year’s deadline, which was surprising considering how active he was last year, acquiring Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet and Matt Cooke.

The Caps were in firm control of the Southeast Division and in contention for the conference’s second seed this March, so McPhee opted to stand pat, which wasn’t roundly criticized but wasn’t fully endorsed either. He wasn’t willing to pay the price it would take to land a star, such as Chris Pronger from Anaheim.

McPhee’s decision looked suspect when the Caps hit a speed bump in early March, losing four straight games, and then when they went down 3-1 in their series against the New York Rangers. Other teams made moves at the deadline to fortify their roster; the Caps didn’t.

Were they paying the price?

“Actually, I felt better about our decision to sit tight because [defenseman Brian] Pothier came in and played very well and was better than anything we could have traded for at the deadline,” McPhee said. “[Forward Chris] Clark is a really nice addition for us - a 30-goal guy who is your captain and brings speed, toughness and experience. We thought we had young goalies in our system who, if things weren’t going well, we could lean on them, and we have.”

Acquiring draft picks and prospects started the whole process. In 2004, a roster purge netted prospects Brooks Laich, Shaone Morrisonn and Tomas Fleischmann, and draft picks that turned into Mike Green and Jeff Schultz.

From there, the Caps were choosy with their free agents in 2005 and 2006, signing Pothier, Matt Bradley, David Steckel and Donald Brashear. The 2006 draft produced Nicklas Backstrom and Simeon Varlamov.

The Caps got aggressive in 2007 to acquire Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov, then made deadline deals to help win the division in 2008.

“We have a homegrown team here,” McPhee said. “For the most part, it’s our draft picks that have turned out to be stars and really not somebody else’s mercenaries.”

Having taken a day to exhale after the Rangers series, McPhee will return to his customary spot on the sixth level of Verizon Center to watch Saturday’s game … without any company.

“It’s just easier,” he said. “You have to try and sit up there and be analytical. [If there are visitors], you end up trying to make conversation. I’d rather just sit and watch.”

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