McPhee the Master Builder

Four wins now separate general manager George McPhee’s current team from George McPhee’s former team from winning the 2018 Stanley Cup. It’s an improbable storyline that’s almost too ridiculous to believe.

Monday night, the Vegas Golden Knights will host the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final. McPhee’s impact on both franchises is almost startling.

“It’s a script that no one saw being written,” said McPhee. “We’re not supposed to be here.”

McPhee and the Capitals

McPhee spent 17 years as the Capitals GM. He was hired in 1997 and fired in 2014. Along the way McPhee drafted Alexander Ovechkin (2004), Braden Holtby (2008), Nicklas Backstrom (2006), John Carlson (2008) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010). He drafted a total of 12 players that were on the roster that defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Alex Ovechkin
McPhee drafted Ovechkin first overall in 2004. Photo: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In his first season at the helm in Washington, the Caps advanced to the Cup Final where they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. From that point on, as the Caps GM, he never made it past the second round.

Recently, McPhee shied away from talking about any of his former players. But, he did mention that he was especially happy for Ovechkin, his former captain in Washington.  He said he and Ovi took a lot of heat for the Capitals’ playoff failures. His simple reply to that, “Unwarranted.”

McPhee and the Golden Knights

McPhee built this team, full of speed and tenacity, from a blank sheet of paper last June. He also arranged side trades that gave him additional players and future draft picks in exchange for picking or not picking certain players.

After a strong start this season, the expectation was a severe letdown. It never happened. The Golden Knights, a team of mostly unproven castoffs, finished with 109 points to lead the Pacific Division.

Since then, they’ve swept the Los Angeles Kings, dropped the San Jose Sharks in six games, and tossed aside the Winnipeg Jets in five games. It’s an incredible 12-3 mark in the playoffs. And they’ve done it in various styles… defeating the defensively-minded Kings, the aggressive and fast skating Sharks and the offensive-minded Jets. They can do it all.

With the exception of three-time Stanley Cup Champion Marc-Andre Fleury who came over from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the roster McPhee built had almost no stars, but it was chock-full of talent. Virtually every player on the Knights’ roster was left unprotected by another team that didn’t appreciate what they had.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights
Fleury has been incredible this postseason. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

A perfect example of that is William Karlsson. He was buried in the Columbus Blue Jackets lineup and getting poor minutes. He netted six goals for the Jackets last year but blossomed into a 44 goal scorer this year.

Vegas Trade Deadline Deals

The expansion draft was critical in building the initial roster, however McPhee made a few strategic moves at the trade deadline in late February. By that point, he knew his team was a serious contender. He also knew injuries were adding up, so he made some moves to bolster his team. “We wanted to do the very best we could for this team that was playing its guts out, to help it,” he said.

He acquired forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for three draft picks: a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2021. Tatar was signed through the 2020-21 season with a contract worth $15.9 million.

He sent Brendan Leipsic to the Vancouver Canucks for Philip Holm.

Last, and most important, he acquired bruising forward Ryan Reaves from the Penguins. Part of the shrewd move included taking on 40 percent of Derick Brassard’s contract. In a three-team deal, Brassard landed with the Penguins and not to Winnipeg, a team that was considering the rugged forward. Of course, Reaves scored the winning goal in Game 5 in Winnipeg.

“We just thought when we get into the games down the stretch and we’re in the playoffs, we can have a guy that can play the game right,” said McPhee. “They’re one of our better lines because they’re playing the game right. The other team isn’t getting chances, we’re keeping it deep on them and playing physical on them.”

Just as important were the moves that McPhee didn’t make. In an effort to keep the incredible chemistry of his players intact, he did not move unrestricted free agents James Neal and David Perron. Their names swirled in rumors leading up to the deadline, but McPhee knew their importance and apparently had no thoughts of trading them. Neal notched 25 goals while Perron talled a career-high 66 points in the regular season.

“We knew that we weren’t moving anybody out,” said Gallant. “We were happy with our lineup, we were happy with the group of players we got.”

McPhee’s Mindset

As the Final begins and fans try to fully understand the possibility of a first-year expansion franchise advancing as far as it has, McPhee remains focused. He insists his team is looking forward to the next game and not reflecting on their success.

“There’s not a lot of time reflect and to sit back and think like that,” said McPhee. “It’s all about keeping moving forward and trying to do whatever we can to keep our standards high.

“We have more games to win. It’s why we’re here,” said McPhee during a news conference at City National Arena. “We’re not satisfied just getting here. We’ve all been around the game long enough to know you don’t get these opportunities very often. Some of us, it’s been 20 years. It doesn’t come around very often. So, you’ve got to try to win it now.”

McPhee, along with head coach Gerard Gallant, have instilled the notion of being a little bit better every game. “I don’t think any of us realize what we have achieved, but that’s a good thing. We’re still hungry. No one is satisfied, and that’s exactly what you want in a team. We know there are more games to play,” said center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

GM of the Year

McPhee, along with Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets, was nominated for the NHL’s General Manager of the Year award.

The Golden Knights became the first modern-era expansion team from the four major North American professional sports leagues to win their division. They also reached the Western Conference Final and are only the third team in NHL history to win multiple playoff rounds in its inaugural season.

George McPhee Golden Knights
McPhee’s fingerprints are all over this year’s Stanley Cup Final. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

Whether his Golden Knights win the Cup is irrelevant at this point. He’s likely a shoo-in for the award. His team has broken nearly every expansion team record in NHL history. It’s incredible to think he created this team from scratch.

Now he’s four wins away from having his name etched into the Cup. Though his name will appear on it if the Knights win it all, the reality is he’s built both franchises into winners.