- - Sunday, May 27, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Welcome to the George McPhee 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

McPhee, the former Washington Capitals general manager, now GM of the Vegas Golden Knights, has more fingerprints on these teams than I have plates at an all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet.

He is, of course, the architect of arguably the greatest single-season feat ever accomplished by a general manager in any sport — building an expansion franchise roster that would go on to win its conference championship and play in the Stanley Cup Final.

And please, if you are want to argue that the National Hockey League’s decision to give Vegas more opportunities to select talent from existing rosters somehow diminishes what McPhee has done, you’ve taken way too many pucks to the head.

The general manager still hired a coach and assembled a roster that had not played together before — players, who, while talented, like former Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt — were deemed expendable by their old teams.

And now they are the toast of the sports world, the biggest act in the biggest showdown in the world, with Game 1 of the finals against Washington Monday night in Vegas.

Who has done that before? I’ll hang up and wait to hear your answer.

If that isn’t enough, McPhee, who was the general manager in Washington from 1997 until he was fired in April 2014, is responsible for more than half of the Capitals roster that won just its second Eastern Conference championship and it playing in just the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final.

I might point out that both of the finals appearances that Washington has made were with McPhee at the helm. I also might point out that out of the 18 seasons that McPhee has assembled NHL rosters, the only two that were not under the thumb of owner Ted Leonsis resulted in conference championships.

So maybe we might want to at least consider the possibility that the management issues that limited their playoff success — never getting past the second round after McPhee’s first year when they reached the finals in 1998 — might have rested with someone other than the general manager. Just saying.

Yes, I know McPhee traded Filip Forsberg to Nashville in 2013 for Martin Erat and Michael Latta, and that Forsberg has gone on to become a star in this league. Bobby Beathard once drafted Ryan Leaf instead of Peyton Manning. He’s going to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Those deals don’t define a career of achievement.

He also drafted Alex Ovechkin. No brainer, right? Nicklas Backstrom, another no-brainer, right? How about Jay Beagle? Signed as a free agent. He also drafted Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chander Stephenson and Tom Wilson. And though McPhee was gone by the time the 2014 draft took place, it is likely his fingerprints are on those selections — Nathan Walker and Jakub Vrana.

Oh, and he hired his replacement, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.

Even though McPhee, 59, built talented rosters in Washington during the Ovechkin era, we all know very well that none of them were able to get as far as this Capitals team.

McPhee still lives with all those disappointments. In a conversation with me earlier this year on the Cigars & Curveballs podcast, he easily recalled moments where everything could have changed for him in Washington:

“There were series there when we completely dominated other teams — outplayed them, outshot them, but ran into a hot goalie or a bad bounce at the wrong time. I remember playing under Dale (Hunter, the 2012 Capitals) in New York in Game 5, would have put us up 3-1 in the series, a faceoff with 22 seconds to go, I think it was. (Joel) Ward takes a double minor on what I thought was a really bad call. They tie it up with six seconds to go and go on to win in overtime. Completely changed the series.

“I remember the very first playoffs we made after rebuilding the team (the 2008 Capitals). We go to overtime, double overtime, and the referee calls a penalty. They had put their whistles away in the second period, didn’t call a penalty in the third period, the first overtime, then call a penalty in the second overtime, Philadelphia scores and they win the series. How do you define that? How do you absorb that? How do you explain it?

“I’ll never forget it because I really thought, ‘If we win this game, we’re winning the Stanley Cup this year. We’re going to have so much momentum, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the series.’ Outshot them 16-4 in the third period, outplayed them in the first overtime, then they call a penalty in the second overtime that in my mind wasn’t even a penalty. Game over. Series over. Season over.”

In that December conversation, McPhee suggested that this might be the year the Capitals break through. “They haven’t punched through yet, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t,” he said. “It could be this year. You see teams that have been knocking on the door for a long time and finally they punch through, whether it was the Detroit Red Wings years ago who couldn’t seem to get through, couldn’t seem to get through and then they got through and won two or three Stanley Cups.

“While it has been difficult, they have been real good teams, they’ve been knocking on the door, and you never know — this could be the year, you never know,” he said.

This, in the year of George McPhee.

Thom Loverro’s “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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