- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2011

The 2004-05 NHL lockout was perhaps the worst thing to happen to hockey in the modern era. A whole season was lost, and a lot of casual fans tuned out the game.

But it may have been the best thing ever to happen to the Washington Capitals. Told that a salary-cap era was coming, this was general manager George McPhee’s chance to build a team almost from scratch.

“We were looking forward to that, because we wanted a level playing field with other clubs. We didn’t have it at the time,” Mr. McPhee told editors and reporters from The Washington Times.

Some clubs in the league were spending $80 million to $90 million on players then, he said. Now the cap is $64.3 million.

Needing to shed some contracts, the Capitals traded veterans Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar. All of a sudden, a team that made the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs fell to near the bottom of the league standings.

“It isn’t very often that you make the playoffs and then tear it all down,” Mr. McPhee said. “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, as he added, “It worked.”

This was the seemingly eternally competitive Capitals team that the general manager had in mind more than seven years ago — a group not at all built in the image of McPhee the pugilist from his playing days, but constructed to be in the running every year to win a Stanley Cup.

Risking it all

Mr. McPhee had already been on the job for seven years and saw the Capitals reach the Cup Finals when he unloaded veterans to create a cap-compliant roster. He and the team won the 2004 draft lottery to get Alex Ovechkin and also picked up the likes of Mike Green and Brooks Laich as building blocks.

But it was a slow build.

“Nobody was in the stands,” Ovechkin told The Times. “We just have free tickets and give it away.”

Crowds were bad, as were ratings. It wasn’t hard to tell why: The Capitals were in the division cellar the last year before the lockout and the two seasons after.

And Mr. McPhee knew at the time that he was taking a chance going young and forcing fans to be patient.

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