The NHL in Las Vegas took another step forward last week when it was announced that George McPhee would be the first general manager in the history of the franchise.
To many around the league, the McPhee name carries instant recognition. His most recent high profile position was with the Washington Capitals, where he served as their GM for 17 years before being relieved of his duties after the 2013-14 season.
What McPhee brings to the table is a wealth of experience. Before his tenure in Washington, he was the director of hockey operations in Vancouver for five years and after being let go from the Capitals he was a senior advisor with the New York Islanders. He also has experience helping build multiple national teams with Hockey Canada.
Las Vegas ownership is tapping into a deep pool of experience, which can only be a good thing, but McPhee has never undertaken a project quite like this before. It’s very rare that a GM has an opportunity to literally build a team from scratch and that’s the opportunity that has fallen in McPhee’s lap.
The first order of business will be assembling a staff. Unlike most cases when a newly-hired GM already has a staff in place when they are hired and then make more hirings and dismissals as they see fit, the native of Ontario is like an artist painting with a blank canvas. An assistant general manager, scouts and coaches will need to be hired, just to name a few positions.
Once that staff starts to come together the most visible part of the franchise will need to be assembled – and that’s the on-ice personnel. And by looking back on McPhee’s track record you can get a glimpse into what kind of roster he’ll aim to build in Las Vegas.
Arguably, McPhee might be best known for his offensively talented, exciting rosters that went deep into the playoffs during his time with the Capitals.
Granted, superstar forward Alexander Ovechkin was the catalyst for a lot of this success and excitement in Washington, something McPhee won’t have at his disposal in Las Vegas — especially in the team’s early days — but it’s likely that he will seek out those players that best fit that offensively skilled role in free agency and in the expansion draft.
It will be interesting though to see if McPhee alters this mold at all considering some key factors.
The Pacific Division features teams like Los Angeles and Anaheim that prefer to play a more “defense first” style. Additionally, teams that don’t have elite players at their disposal sometimes play to keep the score low, and Vegas will likely be void of elite talent at first. This could force McPhee to scale back a bit on offensive skill and finesse.
But at the same time, playing a more offensive type of game could lure in the locals who are new to the game or consider themselves casual viewers, something the franchise will need to do right away.
In the NHL’s salary cap era there’s a lot of importance on the draft and during his time with the Capitals McPhee was able to select some players that have become key pieces to the Washington roster.
Those players include Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th overall in 2010), Marcus Johansson (24th overall in 2009) and Braden Holtby (93rd overall in 2008).
While the expansion draft and free agency will be tools for McPhee to help build up the roster in the short term, the real groundwork for the franchise will be at the NHL Entry Draft. He’ll need more hits like he had with the Capitals if the new franchise hopes to achieve any type of long-term success.
It’s also safe to say that McPhee has learned from past mistakes in Washington, most notably the trading of young assets away for veteran role players.
This was a mistake he made in an April 2013 trade with Nashville where he sent young forward Filip Forsberg to Nashville in exchange for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Forsberg has gone on to score 133 points (60-73—133) in 182 regular season games, while Erat did little in a Caps sweater and Latta has 17 points (4-13—17) in 113 regular season contests for Washington.
There’s a lot of anticipation and excitement over the team name, colors and what players will call Vegas home next October, but McPhee’s history gives us a glimpse of how that team will make a first impression in the NHL.