Experienced GM George McPhee the Right Choice to Guide Las Vegas Expansion TeamJuly 13, 2016
On Wednesday, the yet-to-be-named NHL expansion team in Las Vegas announced it had hired its first general manager. George McPhee, best known as the longtime GM of the Washington Capitals, will head up hockey operations during the team’s formative years.
McPhee's experience and demonstrated level of ability at the position make him a strong choice for the fledgling club.
In choosing McPhee, Las Vegas has opted to follow a path similar to the one taken by the Nashville Predators. The Preds hired David Poile, another former Capitals GM, to run the hockey side of their expansion team back in the summer of 1997. Almost 20 years later, he's still on the job, and the Predators have outperformed most of their expansion cousins.
Looking at those other recent expansion teams, we find that clubs that hired first-time general managers had disastrous results. Both the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets hired men who were new to the top job at the NHL level; Atlanta went 12 years without winning a playoff game before relocating to Winnipeg, and the Blue Jackets now have 16 seasons and two playoff wins in their history.
The Minnesota Wild brought in Doug Risebrough, formerly a GM in Calgary, and while the results didn't represent complete success, the team did go to the third round of the playoffs in its third season of existence.
That isn't to say a first-time general manager can't have success with an expansion team. McPhee, though, has a proven level of ability with the top job at the NHL level. Rolling the dice on a rookie might pay off big, but history shows it can also lead to disaster. With McPhee in charge, the risk that Las Vegas follows the same path as Atlanta or Columbus is mitigated.
Like a lot of hockey executives, McPhee's background in the sport is as a player. He spent four years playing college hockey before making the jump to the professional level, where he played 115 games in the NHL with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.
Even as a player, McPhee had an unusual interest in the financial side of the game. In Jason Farris' book Behind the Moves, Hall of Fame general manager Craig Patrick noted McPhee was the only one of his Rangers teammates to accept an offer to negotiate his own contract rather than let an agent do it:
I ended up giving him more than I was going to give him. What I said to the team was "Look, you are going to pay the agent 3 to 5 percent, whatever you have to pay him." I said, "That's going to be on your total contract. Come and see me, get my number and then, if you don't like it, go to the agent and give him 10 or 20 percent or whatever he gets above instead of giving him 5 percent of everything." George was the only one who thought that was reasonable, so he came in.
McPhee eventually took a job as director of hockey operations with the Vancouver Canucks, where he spent five seasons. In 1997, Washington hired him as its GM. The team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year on the job. That success was temporary, though, and after a half-decade on the playoff bubble, the team decided to do a full-fledged rebuild.
The end result was a good team. Washington won five division titles in a span of six seasons between 2007 and 2013. In 2010, the Capitals set a franchise record with 121 points and won the NHL's Presidents' Trophy. Playoff success proved elusive, however, and after the team took a step backward in 2013-14, the Capitals relieved McPhee of his duties.
If there's a criticism of McPhee, it's that he wasn't able to guide the Capitals over that final hurdle, turning them from a good team into a Stanley Cup winner.
For Las Vegas, that shouldn't be a pressing concern. The important thing right now is to build an effective foundation, and McPhee has done that before. If bridging the gap from "good" to "great" becomes an issue a few years down the line, McPhee will already have been more successful than the majority of expansion managers.
McPhee is a good, experienced GM. He's the right choice for a club that can't afford to start off on the wrong foot.
Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference and Elite Prospects.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.