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Capitals’ McPhee rebuilt team for success after lockout, salary cap

- 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.

"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," he acknowledged. "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."

Things turned in the 2007-08 season after the firing of coach Glen Hanlon and the hiring of Bruce Boudreau, as the Capitals caught fire down the stretch to make the playoffs. They haven't missed since.

"The plan that we were told from Day One was, we were going to bring up a young group of guys and maybe for a little bit you'll take your licks, but eventually one day you'll be a real good hockey team," Laich said.

Not crafted in his image

Mr. McPhee played 115 games in the NHL with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, and despite being just 5-foot-9 and about 170 pounds, he fought 28 times — often against the heavyweights.

Look at this Capitals team and previous incarnations of it, and they aren't built around guys who drop the mitts.

Having a salary cap changed all that.

"You're not going to win a Cup with a bunch of fighters. You have to have talent to win Cups," Mr. McPhee said. "If you're in the middle of a playoff series, and you're looking up and down the bench for the guy that's going to get the next goal to win you the game, you better have them there."

But that's not to say the Capitals aren't tough; they just define toughness in a different way. It's not as much fighting as it is having players who can grind out victories — guys like newcomers Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer and mainstays like Matt Hendricks and Karl Alzner.

Mr. McPhee even pointed to the stars — Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom — as examples of his kind of toughness.

"Do you want to be out there when the real bullets are flying, or do you want to be on the bench and let somebody else do it? Do you want the puck in critical situations, offensively or defensively? Do you want to be the guy that's called on to make the plays at the critical times?" he said.

"Guys like Ovi and Nicky Backstrom and these guys — they want to be the difference-maker. They want the puck in critical situations. That's toughness. Throwing punches and doing that kind of stuff, I guess there's a different kind of toughness there, but that certainly doesn't help you win in the playoffs."

Winning in playoffs?

There is a belief within the organization, set forth by owner Ted Leonsis, that the Capitals are in the midst of being a generationally great team. There's not one chance or two chances to capture the Stanley Cup, but almost a decade's worth of opportunity.

But over the past three seasons, Mr. McPhee said, the talent has been there to do it. He referenced the 2008 club that lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers, the 2009 club that lost in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2010 club that lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens and the 2011 club that was swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the same light — each one could win the Cup.

"Only one team can win, and there are 29 teams every year that are disappointed," he said. "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."

Winning has been there by so many metrics — regular-season success as evidenced by the best record in the league two seasons ago, sellout crowds and a season-ticket-holder group growing by the year — but what Boudreau called "the ultimate win" hasn't been there.

External expectations are high on this club to win now. The Hockey News made the Capitals its pick to capture the Stanley Cup after all these built-up expectations. But the way Mr. McPhee has positioned this team, with stars locked up to long-term deals and prospects pouring through the pipeline like liquid gold, he doesn't see a limited "window" to get a championship.

"If you keep putting good teams on the ice, one of these years you'll break through and win something, he said. "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."

From those who saw the same vision as Mr. McPhee did seven years ago, this is finally the chance to make good on all of it.

"They've been true to their word," Laich said. "Now it's time for us to reward them."

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