Whatever you do, don't mess with George McPhee.
From a distance, McPhee might look like the shy, silent type. Not a chance. There probably isn't a more bruising guy sitting in an NHL front office than him—both on the ice, and apparently off of it as well.
The Ontario native isn't big, but during his playing days he jumped at the chance to mix it up with the most imposing fighters in the NHL. His white-hot temper followed him to the front office after joining the Capitals in 1997. Two years into his gig, McPhee punched out then-Chicago Blackhawks head coach Lorne Molleken outside the locker room after an exhibition game that McPhee thought had gotten just a tad dirty. That little scuffle earned him a month suspension and a $20,000 fine. Whatever. McPhee don't care.
It's clear he takes all of that fire with him to the negotiating table. McPhee is 15 years into his tenure as general manager of the Washington Capitals. Here are the five moves to prove that McPhee is a stone-cold killer in the front office.
The 2003-04 season was a pretty dismal one for the Caps. The glow of the 1998 Stanley Cup run had long since faded, and all the Caps had to show for it was a bunch of bloated veteran contracts. So, George McPhee decided to start cleaning house.
Gone were Captain Steve Konowalchuk, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander, Mike Grier, Robert Lang and, yes, even Peter Bondra. No one was safe from the merciless axe of McPhee. Bondra, a Capitals legend who thought he would end his career in D.C., cried at a press conference announcing his trade to the Ottawa Senators.
And with the lockout taking place the very next season, it was almost like hockey had died in the nation's capital.
But George McPhee had a plan. In exchange for Bondra, the Senators shipped to D.C. a forward by the name of Brooks Laich. And McPhee loaded up on draft picks, using the three he had in the first round of the 2004 draft on Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. Not a bad haul.
The rest is history.
McPhee bumped up assistant coach Glen Hanlon to head coach during that 2003-04 season, and stayed with him even after some dismal seasons. But McPhee clearly was expecting more out of the Caps in 2007 when he brought in Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov and Michael Nylander. However, during one ugly stretch early in the 2007-08 season, the Caps lost 15 of 18 games, and McPhee had had enough.
Rather than look for some washed-up former head coach, McPhee took a gamble on the bench boss for the Capitals' farm team, AHL's Hershey Bears, in Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau's success in the AHL with Calder Trophy victories had convinced McPhee that it was time to see what he could do with his young stars. And he did not disappoint. The Caps went 37-17-7 under Boudreau that season, pulling off a miracle in making the playoffs that year.
That feat wouldn't be nearly as difficult the following years.
Oh, sure, Semyon Varlamov had his moments. He was an exciting player, a youngster with promise in a position the Capitals have struggled to fill.
But he was never that good, and injury problems started to leech away starts, forcing Michal Neuvirth to step in more often. In the end, he only played 59 games in three seasons with the Capitals. And then there came rumors that Varlamov was "disgruntled," which is never a good sign. Playoff teams should always have a gruntled goaltender.
So, George McPhee did what a smart GM did: Ship him off to a team for a first-round pick and a second in either 2012 or 2013. And not to just any team, but the Colorado Avalanche, a team likely to suck and give the Caps a high pick.
Sadly, they didn't suck nearly as much as McPhee surely hoped, but in the end, the Caps were able to use the pick to grab the highly coveted Philip Forsberg with Colorado's 11th pick in the 2012 draft.
And the Avs? They got a guy who played 53 games and put up a .913 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average. Both those numbers ranked 27th in the NHL last year, in case you're wondering.
McPhee is the anti-Dan Snyder, which is partly why I love him. Dan Snyder views draft picks as bargaining chips for aging superstars. After all, why waste those picks drafting top talent for bargain-basement prices when you can spend half your money on a couple of washed-up vets in a salary-capped league?
Not McPhee, however. His drafting prowess has brought us Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Alexander Semin. With the exception of Semin, McPhee has locked up all of those other players to long-term deals that'll keep them as the core for the Caps for years to come. Assuming they ever play hockey again, of course.
Finally, we have a freaking second-line center. It only took half of Ovechkin's career to make it happen. That, of course, is McPhee's fault, as he's spent the last few years making attempts to either massage young talent into that role or bring in a wily vet at the trade deadline to help the Caps make a run.
But finally he's realized it's okay sometimes to just grab a free agent when the right one pops up. In trading for Mike Ribeiro of the Dallas Stars, the Caps are getting a center who can be counted on to deliver about 20 goals per year and 35-50 assists on top of that.
With all the work McPhee has done in his tenure, it'll be exciting to watch what this team can do with the pieces in place. Too bad they'll all be playing on different continents this year.