Published Wednesday, July 13, 2016 | 1:14 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, July 13, 2016 | 4:43 p.m.
Following what team owner Bill Foley called an exhaustive search process, today the still-unnamed Las Vegas NHL franchise officially named George McPhee its first general manager.
McPhee, 58, most recently worked as a special advisor to the general manager for the New York Islanders, but before that he spent 17 years as the general manager of the Washington Capitals. During that stretch, the Capitals reached the postseason 10 times, including a run to the Stanley Cup finals in McPhee’s first season (1997-98).
“I was looking for a guy that was going to be as dedicated, focused, take no prisoners attitude, committed to winning (as me), and as importantly someone I could identify with, have a symbiotic relationship with and we could talk freely and honestly,” Foley said during a news conference at T-Mobile Arena. “I found that person.”
With the help of 18-year NHL veteran Murray Craven, who has been advising Foley over the past two years, Foley said he interviewed seven candidates and conducted two-day interviews with the final three. Some of the other candidates reportedly included Pittsburgh associate GM Jason Botterill and Tampa Bay assistant GM Julien BriseBois, and while Foley said they were all strong, McPhee brought something a little extra.
“I felt that, particularly age-wise and communication-wise, George and I were close,” Foley said. “… I felt confident that we could both be honest and forthright with each other and always be transparent. That’s really important.”
McPhee wasted little time laying out his mission statement in this second go-round as a general manager.
“Our mission here is clear,” McPhee said. “We’re going to build an organization and a team that people in Nevada and Las Vegas will be really proud of, and we’re going to do it quickly, and we’re aiming at the Stanley Cup. It’s that simple.”
Ever since Foley started the process of bringing Vegas its first major-league pro franchise, he has talked about winning the Stanley Cup within eight years. The clock starts ticking with the 2017-18 season, and realistic or not, it’s a mantra that McPhee shares.
“I want to win now too, and we may have an opportunity here that other expansion teams haven’t had, to put a good team on the ice a lot quicker than in the past,” McPhee said.
The NHL last expanded in 2000, and this time around there will be more experienced players available for Las Vegas to choose from as it builds its roster with one player from each of the other 30 teams. The expansion draft will take place next June before the regular player-entry draft, and while the former will fill most of the team’s roster volume, McPhee is already focused on the latter.
“There’s no magic to it. It all starts with the entry draft,” McPhee said. “… We’ll get a nice squad together from the expansion draft, but our elite players are going to have to come through draft picks. … I think we’ve done tremendously well in the draft in our years in Washington.”
The Capitals went through a few different transitions during McPhee’s time at the helm, including a nearly complete rebuild during the 2003-04 season that saw Washington trade off most of its pieces before landing the No. 1 overall pick in 2004. They selected Alexander Ovechkin, and after the 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout, Ovechkin became one of the game’s best players and the Capitals won five more division titles.
“One day, ownership came in and said we want to tear this down and prepare for the new collective bargaining agreement,” McPhee said. “… Ever since we had a level playing field in terms of salary in Washington, we were one of the best teams in the league. I think I’ll be hopefully even better the second time around.”
Two years after Ovechkin, McPhee selected Nicklas Backstrom near the top of the draft, and McPhee showed an ability to find productive players in later picks, too. That includes guys like forward Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th overall in 2010) and goalie Braden Holtby (93rd overall in 2008), who during last month’s NHL Awards at the Hard Rock won the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goaltender.
However, Washington’s regular-season success rarely translated to the postseason. The Capitals always seemed to be on the brink but the Ovechkin-led rosters never made it even to the Eastern Conference finals, and as a result McPhee was let go in 2014.
Prior to Washington, McPhee got his start in management in 1992 as vice president and director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks reached the playoffs four times and the Stanley Cup finals once (1994) while McPhee was there.
As a player, McPhee earned the Hobey Baker Award in 1982 as the top collegiate player at Bowling Green and played 115 games in the NHL, most of them for the New York Rangers. The Edmonton Oilers, who compete in the Pacific Division with Las Vegas, drafted McPhee’s son, Graham, in June.
Working with the Islanders and Team Canada has kept the Guelph, Ontario, native close to the game, but McPhee wanted to jump back in with two feet.
“I really feel ready to do this again,” McPhee said. “I really think communication with ownership is the key. I hope for a terrific relationship with Bill.”
Foley has necessarily taken a large role in the formation of the organization thus far, and now that McPhee is in place the owner said he looks forward to relinquishing some control. Foley will still be involved in personnel and other decision-making, but with a hockey man in place he plans to move closer to the back seat.
“It’s been exciting, it’s been stimulating, it’s been a lot of fun, but I’m kind of ready to go back to Montana,” Foley said.
In the three weeks since the NHL awarded Las Vegas a franchise, Foley said he’s added some ticketing and marketing staff, but building the front office from the top down was the top priority.
“I’ve got my GM, now I need to get my name,” Foley said. “That’s my next step.”
Much like the entire expansion process with the NHL, naming the team has been much more arduous than Foley anticipated. Trademark issues have nixed many of Foley’s choices, but he doesn’t want to just settle on any name, either.
“It needs to be a name that people hear and say, these guys are tough, these guys are going to win, these guys are dedicated,” Foley said.
While Foley works on that, McPhee said he planned to get started both on scouting and building a scouting department. A coaching hire is far off, McPhee said, because he feels it’s better to give the roster to a coach and let them work from there.
But other pieces will soon be in place, because McPhee is eager to build a front office that can back up the belief of he and Foley.
“I expect to start adding people next week,” McPhee said. “We’re going to build a terrific team, people want to be here and that starts tonight with phone calls.”