AP Photo/John Locher
Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights on Saturday will face another of the NHL’s elite when they host the first-place Washington Capitals at T-Mobile Arena.
It’s an organization Vegas General Manager George McPhee is familiar with. He did, after all, construct the majority of the roster from the ground up.
McPhee spent 17 years as general manager in Washington, taking over a struggling team in 1997 and in his first season constructing a team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals. The Capitals made 10 playoff appearances in his tenure and won seven division titles including a franchise-record 121-point season in 2009–10. It eventually came to an end with McPhee being relieved of his duties after the Capitals missed the playoffs in 2014.
McPhee, hired two summers ago in Vegas, is again having success.
Now 33 games into the inaugural season McPhee has a team tied for first place in the Western Conference, three first-round prospects that appear to be flourishing in their respective development leagues, and 10 extra draft picks stockpiled over the next three years.
McPhee spoke with the Las Vegas Sun on how his years in Washington helped lay the groundwork for his blueprint in building the Golden Knights. He also provides an update on the status of many facets of the franchise.
What is it like as you approach the first matchup against an organization that you know so well, with a lot of former coworkers?
What it’s like for me really is irrelevant. What’s important is our coaches and players are ready to play and see if we can win a game. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing some members of the equipment staff and medical staff — people that I worked with for a long time — but with respect to the game my feelings really don’t matter.
You were obviously with that organization for a long time. When you look back, what is your overall feeling of your time with the Washington Capitals?
It was a great experience. We took over a team that seemed to be an outpost at the time. They had only 2,900 season ticket (holders), below average ticket prices and not much success. It’s now a tremendous hockeytown that sells out every game. It’s been one heck of a team for the last 10 years.
What did you take from what you learned running that team to build what you have with the Vegas Golden Knights?
There were some similarities. When we took over the team in Washington we were approaching the new collective bargaining agreement and felt there was going to be a work stoppage that might last as long as a year, and it did. We decided to tear the team down and rebuild it to get ready for the salary cap that was coming. So we did that and three years later we were in the playoffs and it’s been a very good team ever since. So that experience of rebuilding a team has helped a lot with building this team out here.
As you’ve molded this franchise from the bottom up, and now you’re getting to watch them on the ice, is there anything that has gone a lot better than you expected it would going in?
It’s hard to say at this point because it’s still early. We aren’t even at the midway point of the season. So while we’re delighted with the players we have, their personalities and the way they compete, we’re still underdogs in this league and have a lot to do going forward.
When you watch the Golden Knights analytically, are there things you see that lead you to believe this play is sustainable, and not just a flash in the pan?
When we review our post action reports there are things we like about the numbers and things we need to improve on. Again, there’s a reason we play the games. Things can look fine on paper but that doesn’t matter once the puck is dropped. We’re not interested in getting ahead of ourselves. We stay focused on trying to win the next game. There will be lots of time to talk about how well we did or how well we didn’t do.
When you claimed goaltender Malcolm Subban off waivers you said the expansion draft gave you some advantages but the one thing it didn’t lend to was acquiring future goaltenders. With Marc-Andre Fleury missing time, you’ve had the chance to see Subban, Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace thrive. Does it change your outlook going forward knowing that maybe the team is a little bit deeper and younger at goalie than we thought we would be coming in?
We’re certainly more comfortable than we were, having watched the goalies perform. Dave Prior did a really good job. Until people play, and show you they can play, they’re just prospects. They were thrown into the fire and they demonstrated they are capable of competing hard and giving us some goaltending. That would definitely be an area that we are happier now than we were before.
One of the players that stood out to me, both on the ice and in the locker room, is Alex Tuch. What are your thoughts on how Tuch has progressed, and what do you think his ceiling is as a player?
He’s playing very well. We have a lot of players that are playing very well. Tuch was not a secret. He was a first round pick who had size, speed and touch around the net. We just thought that it would be a matter of time before he could be an effective player. We didn’t know that would be this year, next year or the following year, but he came to camp ready to play in the league this year and forced us to keep him. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
It’s obviously still early, but there are players performing much better than most people thought, much earlier than most people thought. Has the internal timeline for you changed, and will it affect any moves going forward?
I’m not sure about that. We certainly have a blueprint, but as we all know in this business, the plan changes every day. You have to make adjustments every day, and we are delighted with the way a lot of the players have performed. What we tried to do coming out of both the expansion draft and the entry draft, was have a team on the ice that could be really competitive, while at the same time have a stockpile of surplus draft picks to be able to draft our way to a championship. So far we are doing ok, but there’s a long way to go. We are 32 games in and it might be premature to talk about what we will do three months from now.
The team has a surplus of draft picks going forward, but you already have three first-round picks that are developing in their respective leagues (Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom). How pleased have you been with what you’ve seen from those guys?
They’ve been very good, and they are developing the way we expected them too. Cody Glass is a leading scorer in his league, Suzuki is a leading scorer in his league and Brannstrom has played well in his professional league. We are going to take our time with them. We have a development plan in place for them. We drafted well, and now we have to develop well with these players. If we do the right things, and they do the right things, they are going to be very good players.