George McPhee’s end and the ongoing Capitals identity crisis

George McPhee’s end and the ongoing Capitals identity crisis

George McPhee was the Forrest Gump of general managers. Not in the sense that he was feeble-minded, although some Washington Capitals fans might debate that, but in the sense that he was the constant through what seemed like decades of dramatic, unwavering change.

He was there for the Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998, the first in franchise history. He was there when Ted Leonsis purchased the franchise, and pulled the trigger when Leonsis wanted Jaromir Jagr in Washington in 2001. He was there when Teddy AOL decided to send the team’s veteran players to the junk mail folder in 2003-04 – including Seregi Gonchar and Jagr – and rebuild with youth.

He drafted Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and every other homegrown product that would eventually help the Washington Capitals to five Southeast Division titles from 2007-2012. He built a formidable farm system with the AHL Hershey Bears and helped foster a new era in Capitals hockey – one of unprecedented fan enthusiasm and unprecedented expectations for the franchise.

He traded players, fired coaches, handed out contracts large and extra-large. He had done it all and seen it all in his 17 seasons as the general manager. And yet, as the team announced on Saturday he won’t return next season, we’re left with the same question that McPhee faced in every era of his stewardship:

Who are the Washington Capitals?

McPhee’s downfall was defined by his desperate attempt to provide an answer. When the Montreal Canadiens shocked the Washington Capitals in the first round in 2010, the notion was that they couldn’t be the free-wheeling offensive juggernaut they had been. Soon Bruce Boudreau lost his identity and his job.

Enter Dale Hunter, who tried to turn the Capitals into a shot-blocking team that would occasionally stumble into a scoring play. He was heralded as a coach that the Capitals had coveted for years; he lasted less than a full season, running back to the comfort of junior hockey rather than attempting to traverse the mine-field of egos in the Capitals locker room.

Enter Adam Oates as Hunter’s successor, a former Capital credited with being a power play specialist and someone who worked well with a Russian superstar in New Jersey. One of the finalists for that job was Jon Cooper, now a potential Jack Adams winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning. There’s always been talk that Cooper was McPhee’s choice while upper management wanted Oates.

Whoever made the call, it was seen as the last coach McPhee would hire. And Oates was turfed on the same day that McPhee’s contract wasn’t renewed.

The last few seasons were not McPhee’s greatest. Mistakes were made – the Martin Erat deal will go down as McPhee’s worst, especially since it was one of the few times he flipped a blue-chip prospect for anything. Veteran players entered the fray, making minimal impact. By the time Oates was telling the media that the clutch veteran goalie McPhee acquired at the deadline has begged out of a start against his old team, it was probably time to start boxing the GM’s office.

The biggest problem with McPhee during his tenure was a failure to address systemic problems with his core.

(Well, that and realignment, which took the Capitals from an easy playoff berth every season to the bubble; and look what happened ...)

Need a playoff scorer? Here’s Joel Ward. Need a veteran center? Here’s Jason Arnott. Not going to the net enough? Mike Knuble will. Need a hard-nosed guy with a Cup ring in his resume? Take our money, Troy Brouwer.

It was all adding details rather than examining the thesis, all window dressing instead of checking the foundation. It was like treating a cancer patient a Percocet – temporary relief that did nothing to address the fact that, well, they had cancer.

He was loyal to the core of this team, to a fault, believing it could coalesce into a champion and never making the tough call to blow it up. There’s no reason Mike Green should be entering his 10th season in Washington making $6 million. There no reason why Brooks Laich, exalted de-facto leader that's led the team nowhere, should be signed through 2017. When the Caps failed to meet expectations, coaches’ heads rolled but beloved franchise faces never did.

The one member of the core that was jettisoned? Alex Semin, Russian for scapegoat.

But let’s say the core wasn’t the problem. That Ovechkin and Backstrom and Green and Laich and Johansson and Alzner and Carlson and Erskine and the carousel of goalies could eventually win. If McPhee was right, he ended up doing wrong: Obsessed with adding pieces at forward, and never making an essential, bold move on defense.

Granted, some of this is having $6 million tied up in a B-level defenseman like Green, who was on track to become a foundational player but never achieved it. But where is the stopper here? The 25-minute-a-night guy? The Pronger or Keith or Suter or Weber or, hell, the Phaneuf? With the war chest of picks and prospects the Capitals had during the Ovechkin era, they could have found that guy somewhere.
Oates was fond of comparing the Capitals to the Bruins insofar as keeping the roster together and eventally winning; is the fouth-best defenseman on that team better than anything the Caps have on the blue line?

McPhee also never landed a franchise goaltender after the transition from Olaf Kolzig's tenure in 2009, hoping that a succession of time-share keepers (Cristobal Huet) and prospects – Semyon Varlamov, Michel Neuvirth and Braden Holtby – would blossom. Each had their moments; only one remains. (But I steadfastly stand by the idea that the Caps won the Varlamov trade, who was an RFA that wasn’t coming back to Washington and yet Greg Sherman handed a first-rounder to McPhee for him.)

McPhee also failed to ever hire a coach with NHL head coaching experience during the Ovechkin era, nor one with a ring. Say what you will about that being an overrated aspect, but perhaps this aimless bunch that never figured out how to win might have needed someone behind the bench that had.

McPhee will be fine. His connection to the Vancouver Canucks likely makes him a candidate there. The Calgary Flames would be a better fit, although we’d like to see the former Caps GM and Brian Burke arguing over drafting Russians vs. drafting NCAA players. Heck, McPhee is a Lou Lamoriello disciple; maybe he waits it out and takes over in Jersey one day.

The Washington Capitals are no longer George McPhee’s team.

So who are the Washington Capitals?

Come next fall, here’s what I’d like them to have become:

Not Alex Ovechkin’s Team. No, I’m not joining the chorus that says “trade Ovie” because that’s titanically stupid. The Capitals will spend the next 30 years looking for another 50-goal scorer. But it’s time for him to be part of a team instead of a one-man show. As it stands, the team lives and dies on his offense. It thrives or fails on his shoulders. That’s no way to build a champion. Here’s an idea: Go without a captain next season. Symbolically make it about the team. Or, if they really want to make thinks interesting: Find a Malkin to his Crosby, and see what another Alpha Male in the room does for him.

Throw All The Money At Bob Nicholson. The Capitals were rumored to have approached Nicholson, the former Hockey Canada chief, to take over their franchise. The Capitals don’t just need someone to tinker with the current roster; they need someone to reinvigorate the farm system and change the overall culture of the franchise. Nicholson is that guy.

Failing That, Or Along With It, Hire Predators. Paul Fenton, the assistant GM under David Poile, is as highly regarded as they come and a solid player development guy. Making him the next general manager would be seen as a hockey-smart move; bringing along his former coach in Nashville, Barry Trotz, would be seen as even smarter. Trotz immediately bucks the McPhee trend of hiring novices. He’s a voice that commands respect.

For the first time since 1997, the Washington Capitals will have a new general manager this fall.

They’ll also have yet another identity to try on, something that’s unfortunately come to define this suddenly rudderless franchise.