McPhee, 55, has been the team’s general manager since 1997. He presided over a Stanley Cup finalist that first year, endured a painful rebuild in the middle of his tenure and eventually made Washington a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record in 2009-10.
But after 17 years it was time for a change, according to owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick, who spoke at an afternoon press conference at Verizon Center. McPhee’s contract will not be extended after the Caps missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.
“Today is a difficult day for the organization, for me personally,” Leonsis said. “It came down, honestly, to, after all of the work that we did and the due diligence, for Dick and I to sit down and say ‘Do we think this team, with this leadership, can compete for and win a Stanley Cup going into next season. And our answer was obviously ‘No.’ And that’s why we made the change.”
Oates, 51, was head coach for two years. His team went 27-18-3 in 2012-13 during the lockout-shortened season, won the Southeast Division title after a slow start, but was again knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round in seven games by the New York Rangers. This season the Caps were 38-30-14 and missed the postseason all together.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ted Leonsis, Dick Patrick, George McPhee, our coaching staff, the players and everyone involved with the Washington Capitals organization,” Oates said in a statement released by the team later in the day. “It was a tremendous honor to coach the Capitals these past two seasons. It is a great franchise with a wonderful fan base that will always be close to my heart. I’m grateful for the opportunity they provided me and wish them nothing but the best in the future.”
“I am absolutely convinced that George McPhee will have an unbelievably long, great career in the NHL with another team and that someone in this room will write a column that says ‘Why isn’t he still the general manager?’ And the same with Adam Oates,” Leonsis said. “Adam Oates will be the head coach for another team and do really, really well. This is the seat that we’re in. Dick and I are owners of the team. We’re not executives of the team. We own the team and we just felt that we needed to have a change so that we could move forward as an organization. Tough decision. Today’s not a happy day for me.”
McPhee was the fifth general manager in Caps’ history dating to the first season in 1974-75. The organization has had only two general managers since 1982 when David Poile, now the general manager for the Nashville Predators, was hired. McPhee was his replacement in 1997 and helped Washington reach the finals that first year for the only time in franchise history.
But playoff failures have defined his tenure, too. After being swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, Washington lost in the first round six times (2000, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2013) and reached the second round three times (2009, 2011 and 2012). They never appeared in a conference final series again, losing Game 7s at home twice when in position to do so. Washington also missed the postseason six times (1999, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2014) under McPhee, including this season.
“The glass could be half full or half empty. We are only one of five teams to make the playoffs, before this year, for six years,” Leonsis said. “And we have a good record in the regular season. But we weren’t making progress in the playoffs. And this year we didn’t make the playoffs and as I said at the beginning, if you don’t make the playoffs, you can’t win the Stanley Cup.”
In the NHL, only New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello (1987) and Carolina’s Jim Rutherford (1994) have been at their post longer than McPhee, who was hired June 9, 1997. And Rutherford is expected to resign from his job after the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs.
Add in the NBA’s Pat Riley (1995) with the Miami Heat and Major League Baseball’s Brian Sabean (1996) with the San Francisco Giants, and those are the only men serving as general managers – Riley is technically Miami’s team president – who have been on the job longer than McPhee.
McPhee, a Guelph, Ontario native, played college hockey at Bowling Green and won the 1982 Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s best player. He played for seven years in the NHL, earned a law degree from Rutgers University in 1992 and spent five years as the director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks.
The Caps won Southeast Division titles seven times under McPhee and seven times won 40 games or more. The 2009-10 squad set the franchise record for wins and points and the club was the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs that year and in 2010-11.