McPhee was Washington’s general manager from 1997-2014. He was in charge when the Capitals made their only Stanley Cup Final appearance before this year’s, in 1998. He oversaw some lean years in D.C. but also some great ones, including six straight playoff seasons from 2008 to 2013. He did everything except win a Stanley Cup.
After the Capitals missed the playoffs in 2014, the Capitals fired him. (In technical parlance, they just let his contract expire, but it was clear which side wanted him to go.) McPhee caught on the next year with the dreadful Islanders as a special assistant, and when the NHL’s new Vegas franchise started up business in 2017, owner Bill Foley hired McPhee to construct a new roster from the ground up. It’s worked out; McPhee made a bunch of smart moves around that summer’s expansion draft and made the best expansion team ever.
The Capitals have changed a lot since McPhee left, but this team is still mostly made up of McPhee’s guys.
McPhee acquired 13 of the 25 Capitals who have played in these playoffs. These aren’t fringe players. McPhee’s pickups included Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Braden Holby, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer, and Tom Wilson. Washington would be nowhere near the Final without them.
The GM the Capitals hired to replace McPhee is Brian MacLellan, who’s done a good job. It was MacLellan who hired longtime Predators coach Barry Trotz to lead the Caps. It was MacLellan who signed winger T.J. Oshie and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik — all players on iffy contracts, but all contributors during this Cup run nonetheless. He drafted Jakub Vrana, the young winger who’s jolted the Caps’ offense at turns this spring.
McPhee is in an odd situation, because he’s a) the GM of an expansion team that made the Final in its first year, and b) trying to beat his own players.
“It’s funny how life goes,” McPhee told reporters at a press conference the day before the Final. “Two years ago I was walking around Ann Arbor kicking stones and couldn’t get a job, you know. I’m certainly proud of the Washington team and the players. We made good selections. And they turned out to be real good players. I can certainly take pride in that.”
McPhee became close with the players he brought into Washington’s organization. Ovechkin was an obvious No. 1 overall pick in 2004, and anyone in the world would’ve taken him if given the opportunity. But McPhee made challenging, hugely successful picks in first-rounders like Backstrom and Kuznetsov. He found Holtby in the fourth round of the 2008 draft and oversaw his development for years. He had his hands in lots of players’ growth.
“When you’re working with them, they’re sometimes like your own kids,” McPhee said. “You’re on call for them all the time. You’re trying to help them. You’re trying to steer them in the right direction, and then you get fired, and you’re suddenly persona non grata because nobody wants to be too close to you in the organization. I understand that things change quickly. And that’s the business.”
McPhee is the first GM in the NHL’s expansion era (post-1967) to face a team he previously GM’d for in the Cup Final. One other guy, Montreal’s Tommy Gorman, did it against Chicago in 1944. Groman’s Canadiens beat the Black Hawks that year.
Adding to this plot: McPhee is really close with the guy who replaced him.
McPhee and MacLellan are both from Guelph, Ontario, where they were born less than four months apart in 1958. They were junior hockey teammates, and they played four college seasons together at Bowling Green. They were teammates in the NHL for a year, when both played for the Rangers in 1985-86. MacLellan then worked under McPhee in the Capitals’ front office from 2000 to 2014. He was McPhee’s assistant GM for player personnel — basically, the No. 2 hockey operations man in the building — for seven years.
“Mac and I, it’s just another chapter in this crazy book that is our season,” McPhee said. “We’ve texted a little bit. We talked [Saturday]. Last time I saw him before that was at the GMs meeting. We had dinner. It’s sort of gone this way, and hard to believe, but we’ll enjoy it. It beats some of the jobs we had when we were kids, and we’ll see where this goes.”
Sometime after this series ends, the two GMs will probably have beers. But for now, they’re are odds on the highest-stakes stage of a cutthroat industry. They’ve had chances to get used to that for about a year. At the expansion draft, the Capitals ran out of spots to protect defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was regarded as one of the best players available to the Knights. MacLellan tried to keep him, but McPhee didn’t offer him the right deal.
“It’s not like the relationship is in total, where you’re talking as friends or somebody you’ve grown up with,” MacLellan said. “It wasn’t that at all. It was pure business.”
A year later, it’s still pure business.