John Locher / Assocaited Press
Monday, May 28, 2018 | 2 a.m.
In the summer of 2015, Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was unemployed and having little luck finding a job in the NHL.
“It’s funny how life goes,” McPhee said. “I was walking around Ann Arbor kicking stones and couldn’t get a job, you know.”
A few quick years later, it’s a different story. When the Stanley Cup Finals begin at 5 p.m. today at T-Mobile Arena, the teams battling for hockey’s holy grail are an expansion team McPhee built from scratch less than a year ago, and a team he mostly built during his decade as general manager in Washington.
In his 17 years with the Washington Capitals, McPhee led the team to seven division championships and 10 playoff appearances, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season in 1998. But after failing to make it out of the second round of the playoffs six consecutive times, McPhee was fired.
The exit wasn’t an easy one for McPhee.
“When you’re working with (the players), they’re sometimes like your own kids,” McPhee said. “You’re on call for them all the time. You’re trying to help them. You’re trying to steer them in the right direction, and then you get fired, and you’re suddenly persona non grata because nobody wants to be too close to you in the organization. I understand that things change quickly. And that’s the business.”
After a brief stint with the New York Islanders, McPhee was brought on by Golden Knights’ owner Bill Foley in June 2016 to build the franchise from the ground up. The team would be largely build with the first NHL expansion draft in the salary cap era, and McPhee executed it masterfully.
“That created possibilities that we may not have anticipated early on because people either had expansion stress, too many players, and not being able to protect them all, or account stress, they had money issues,” McPhee said. “So in addition to the rules being more favorable, there were teams that were looking to get out of certain deals, and we could get better players or better draft picks if we could play ball with them.”
In almost every instance, teams that made deals with McPhee came out on the losing end. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave McPhee a second round pick to convince him to take Marc-Andre Fleury (and his contract) off their hands, and he’s now four wins away from being named the Conn Smythe winner as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Minnesota gave McPhee prospect Alex Tuch to convince him to take Erik Haula instead of young defensemen Matt Dumba or Jonas Brodin. Tuch and Haula have been spectacular this season for the Golden Knights while Dumba and Brodin have been underwhelming at best.
And of course, the worst of the bunch came from Columbus where the Blue Jackets gave McPhee a first round pick to stay away from certain players, and instead take William Karlsson who went on to finish third in the NHL with 43 goals.
No one — including McPhee — saw this trip to the Stanley Cup Final coming.
“You know, we wanted to be good,” McPhee said. “We didn’t want to be a doormat. We didn’t want to be an embarrassment. We wanted this to work. The league needed it to work. We needed it to work. This community needed it to work.”
And now, just as this storybook season should end, the only team standing between McPhee and his first Stanley Cup as a player or general manager, is the team that he built. There are still 10 players on the active roster that McPhee brought to the Capitals, including the top four scorers in the playoffs and six of the top eight scorers.
“I’m certainly proud of the Washington team and the players,” McPhee said. “We made good selections. And they turned out to be real good players. I can certainly take pride in that.”
It’s a unique situation. There’s never been a championship game in major professional sports in which one general manager had more to do with the construction of both participants. McPhee certainly knows the Capitals team well, but if his knowledge will help Vegas in this series he certainly isn’t showing his hand.
“I wouldn’t give that kind of ammunition away, but I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect in rounds one, two, or three, and I don’t know what to expect now. We’re going to approach it as we always have and just get ready for (tonight) and see if we can win a hockey game. That’s the game that’s in front of us, and see where it goes.”