From Alzner to Wideman, we took a look at and graded the 2010-11 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2011-12. Now that we've covered the players and the coach, it's time to take a look at the architect of the team: General Manager George McPhee.
General Manager / Washington Capitals
July 2, 1958
In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed.
[Since a general manager's season is hard to quantify beyond a team's regular season numbers and projections about prospects and draft choices, we figured we'd have a roundtable discussion on what McPhee did well and what he may not have done so well. Feel free to weigh in on any of these points in the comments.]
The first question is a biggie - looking back at 2010-11, did George McPhee assemble a roster that could have reasonably been expected to compete for a championship?
Kareem: No, I do not think the roster was Stanley Cup championship caliber. Looking at the Caps position-by-position, I thought that McPhee assembled a very good defense (injuries notwithstanding) and a good goaltending tandem. And at forward, the Caps had good wings. But I did not think the team had the proper skill and depth at center to make a Cup-winning run. Jason Arnott and Marcus Johansson are nice players, but one's well past his prime and the other is a few years from it. If you go back and look at Stanley Cup finalists from the past several years, they ALL had second-line centers who could have played first-line center on other teams. That did not describe the Caps at center. But it's not an excuse for the obvious: the 2010-11 Caps woefully underachieved. The Caps should have been a third round team and could have made it to the Finals with this roster.
Pepper: Can't disagree with that assessment. McPhee's faith in the young defense tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, and the goaltending "trio," paid off pretty handsomely for him. But, down the middle, the unwavering approach to building up that position has been, and continues to be, from the draft. In that regard, Johansson is, for sure, a few years from his prime. Other pivots in the organization who would assume a second line center position, and be able to perform all that is required from it, are still further away. In short, all the necessary elements of a Stanley Cup caliber team are not yet coming together at once.
But is that unwavering approach the right one to pursue, to the exclusion of all else, through, now, Alex Ovechkin's sixth NHL season? Is it ok that, in Ovi's career to date, the Caps have achieved only two playoff series victories, against the same team, seeded 7th and 8th in the respective seasons? Like we've all debated with respect to Coach Boudreau, how much of the blame for this mediocre playoff performance is on McPhee, and how much is on the offensive star corps of the Caps?
I think McPhee has been overly conservative in parting with assets and making creative, aggressive, potentially high-reward roster moves to shore up the key center position, as well as consistent, dependable secondary playoff-scoring punch, beyond trade-deadline rentals. And for a organization that has performed best in the post-season in the first one of McPhee's fourteen year-long Caps career, there is only so long that an organization can, or should, continue with the same brain trust at the helm.
David: I think fourteen seasons is a slight misrepresentation of McPhee's tenure with the Capitals. He took over in '98 and the team was humming along fine until the Jagr trade and while the trade itself made sense, the extension - Ted Leonsis' idea, by all accounts - was what sunk the team and forced them to start over. I think the lockout onward is the fair measure of McPhee's impact, and by that he has done pretty well.
J.P.: I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you guys here - on paper, the 2010-11 Capitals could have reasonably been expected to compete for a championship.
Goaltending? There was no reason to think that the tandem of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov wasn't capable of doing what Antti Niemi or Michael Leighton did a year earlier - somewhere between "good" and "good enough."
Defense? With the Carlson/Alzner duo up top, and (remember, on paper) pairings of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz and Dennis Wideman and Scott Hannan behind them (and John Erskine off the bench), the Caps had a six-deep group that's among the best of the Eastern Conference's playoff teams.
Forwards? Sure, the Caps weren't as strong down the middle as some other recent champs, but with an elite pivot manning the first line, a veteran presence who could still play a bit on the second and an emergent rookie on the third, it was hardly a fatal flaw (say it with me... on paper). Add to that two elite scoring wingers, secondary scoring from guys like Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr, a bit more depth behind them from the likes of Marco Sturm and Jason Chimera, and a theoretically solid checking line, this is a group that should have provided enough scoring and responsible defense.
To me, the pieces were there. In a capped league, you're never going to have a "perfect" roster, but the 2010-11 Caps' was enough to give fans reason to hope they'd be playing in June.
David: I think your last point is the crucial one. Kareem makes a valid point himself when he points out that the Caps lack the kind of center depth other Cup Finalists have had, but if you're looking at a team and only seeing one personnel flaw that's keeping them from being a prototypical Cup team, in the capped world, that should be enough. I mean, we can talk about the center issue all we want, but each of the teams that have been in the Finals post-lockout have had warts. It's just that they were able to neutralize them, and I don't see the Caps doing that.
I guess the short version of what I'm saying is that the Caps didn't have a perfect roster, or the best roster in the league, but I think it was definitely good enough to win a Cup.
Becca: I’d agree that on paper this team was constructed well enough to compete for the Cup. Put them up against the rest of the East and in general you’ve got guys who are comparable to – and at times far more talented than – their counterparts on any of the 8 playoff teams.
They had a nice blend of youth and veteran experience, of flashy skilled guys and gritty blue collar players, to make a long run. They added depth at the deadline as well as more experience and, more importantly, a bit more stability down the middle with the acquisition of Jason Arnott. And as JP points out, Neuvirth and Varlamov are at least as capable as the goalies who competed last year (and in my mind they’re more capable of making an impact than Niemi and Leighton). It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that this team made it to the Finals if everything fell the right way.
Next non-question question - give me one good and one bad move that GMGM has made over the past 12 months.
[Ed. Note: Be sure to keep reading after the jump, beneath the poll]
Becca: I’d say the best move GMGM made this year was sticking with Marcus Johansson for the whole season. We saw how Johansson flourished over the course of the year and how, with confidence and experience, he became a valuable member of the team – particularly in the first round against New York. Had he been sent back to Hershey in favor of someone like Perreault, I’m not sure that his evolution would have been as smooth or as fast; and while he has some areas in which he needs to improve, he can now focus on those over the summer knowing that his position on the team is fairly secure. It was a gutsy move by GMGM, one that should hopefully pay off down the line.
As for the one bad move…tough to say, because I’m not sure I’d quantify any of his moves as outright bad so much as moves that didn’t pan out. I guess you could throw the Poti extension in there for timing reasons alone, as waiting a bit to sign it would probably have made it a moot issue as he got injured soon after – but it was neither a cost nor a length of time that would really handcuff the team going forward so it’s hard to be that upset about it (…for me, at least).
David: Best move I'll say was the goalies. It would have been easy to listen to the lazy criticism and taken the risk-averse route and picked up a veteran goalie in the offseason, but that would have required moving valuable players and/or picks, committing to too long a contract, or both. Instead the Caps will likely have one of the best values in the NHL at the position next year and still have a decent trade chip.
I think the Wideman acquisition was an underrated move. The team got a solid defenseman on a good contract for a third round pick, and given how important defensive depth is and the success rate on third rounder, I think that's a clear win. I'm still surprised Florida couldn't get more for Wideman, but I guess that's what good GMs do - find the undervalued guys and go get them.
Worst move has to be the Poti extension. The years and dollars aren't crazy (though I disagree with Becca that it's not enough to handcuff the team), it's that, again, timing was an issue. You'd think after all the times the Caps had signed guys to contracts they weren't worth way too early, they'd learn, but apparently they're not, and that distresses me. As much as I like McPhee and the current front office, you want to see them learning from their mistakes, and I don't see that.
Pepper: The bad? Re-signing Poti through 2012-13. Even before the now career-threatening injury struggles of #3, this late-September pact looked both ill-timed and too-long-timed. The good? Acquiring Hannan for Tomas Fleischmann. It took a while for Hannan to fit in with the Caps -- and Coach Boudreau to figure out how best to deploy him -- but once he did, he buttressed the Caps D and played a leading role in locking down the PK through the remainder of the season.
Kareem: My favorite GMGM move was the decision to go with youth on defense and in goal. I especially like McPhee not pursuing an expensive free agent or a costly trade for a "veteran goaltender" and instead going with the Varly-Neuvy combo. That saved the Caps a lot of money. But McPhee did some poor things too. The 2C was not properly addressed. Jason Arnott was good - when he was on the ice. (A banged-up Arnott only played 16 limited minutes/night in the playoffs.) That said, McPhee's biggest mistake to me is, as Tom Boswell stated, overvaluing the players on his team. With hindsight, last year's flame-out to Montreal was indeed unlucky, but not a "fluke". The Caps just aren't the sum of their parts. The core players - the ones the team has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in - cannot consistently elevate their game when it matters and there is genuine concern around their ability to ever get to that level.
J.P.: I'm both with you... and disagreeing with you here, K. I've got as GMGM's best move his willingness to see what he had before going out and spending assets to bring in potentially redundant, lesser and/or potentially development-stunting pieces. Last summer, the pundits said, "Bring in a veteran goaltender." He didn't - he wanted to see what he had in Michal Neuvirth and, if he needed to address the position during the season, he would have. Obviously that wasn't necessary. Last summer, the pundits said, "Bring in a defenseman or two. Or three." He didn't - he wanted to see what he had in John Carlson and Karl Alzner, and, when he needed to address the position during the season, he did so with Scott Hannan and Dennis Wideman. Last summer, the pundits said, "Bring in another center or two." He didn't - he wanted to see what he had in Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, and, when he needed to address the position during the season, he did so with Jason Arnott.
Clearly the Caps were not as strong as they might have hoped down the middle when the playoffs came around, but even there, I think McPhee's approach was sound - if he hadn't been patient in these three spots, the Caps might have burned assets, ended up with players in roles that would have slowed their respective developments, and so on.
As for my least favorite move, yeah, that Poti extension stunk at the time - for the timing much moreso than the dollars or term, but I'll throw another one out there to break up the monotony and mention the D.J. King trade. No, Stefan Della Rovere wasn't a big loss, but to actively go out and acquire a guy who was never really utilized, and certainly wasn't as good as GMGM was selling him as being was... odd. It's not a move that cost the Caps much of anything in the short- or long-term, but it's worth noting.
Kareem: I have no beef with McPhee's approach to filling holes. He was definitely diligent and did not make rash decisions during the season. My beef with McPhee is with the assessment of his core players. With hindsight, he overvalued the raw talent of the core players and undervalued the soft skills: their committment, leadership, mental preparation, ability to withstand adversity, etc. Despite the wisdom of going with youth and the great mid-season additions (excellent trades, btw!), the end result from this past season was still a team that underperformed when it mattered most. Remember, McPhee's teams have only won two series since the lockout. There's something missing from the teams he has assembled. That ultimately falls on McPhee's shoulders.
David: I think that's debatable when you consider the criticism of Boudreau - the way he doles out playing time, his inability or unwillingness to reign certain guys in, some of what comes across as excuse-making, his bristling at being questioned about the team's issues, the inability of his teams to react, and so on. We've never seen these core guys on a competitive roster with a different coach, and I'd want to see how they respond to someone else before I make that call.
Then again, when you look at the young leaders on some of the recent Cup Final teams - Toews and Crosby being the most notable - they're guys it's hard to imagine needing to be pushed by a coach to be their best.
What should George McPhee's primary goal be this summer?
Pepper: Finding a trading partner for Alexander Semin? Maybe. I'll say resigning Scott Hannan to a more modest contract than the one he inked with Colorado.
Becca: His primary goal needs to be shoring up the defense a bit, whether that means bringing in someone new or re-signing Hannan to a more reasonable contract (or both). And of course that means locking up Alzner, as well.
Kareem: Tactically, it's to find a solution to the 2C issue. Any chance of the Caps competing for the Cup depends on getting elite play out of the 2C next season. Just as importantly, he needs to add some mental toughness to the top 10 skaters. The team is good, but they're not hard to play against, they don't adjust on the fly and - apologies to the fan base - they're just a mentally soft bunch. Find me some players who can claw and fight instead of roll over when things aren't going their way. Maybe that will spare the Caps from these extended playoff losing streaks we're too accustomed to seeing (3 vs PHI in 2008; 3 vs PIT in 2009; 3 vs MTL in 2010; 4 vs TAM in 2011).
David: Depth at center is still the most pressing issue, but getting Alzner signed to a long-term contract for decent money would be a huge win and the one I think is most likely.
J.P.: Yep. It's the centers. On the plus side, finding a good third-line center on the open market should be very doable.
Finally, the tough question... we touched on it a bit in the last Wrap, but how long can McPhee stick with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench?
Kareem: Nine times out of ten if a team flames out three straight playoff seasons, the coach is gone. This is the one time out of ten. McPhee's got some...um....courage to stick with Boudreau. Because of that I think McPhee's wagon is hitched to BB. If he fires BB mid-season it looks really bad, because a lot of pundits would be saying that it should have happened in May 2011. If BB flames out in the playoffs again, it looks bad too. Basically, if the Caps do not have playoff success next year I think both gentlemen are gone next summer. Fifteen seasons is a long time to manage and have nothing to show for it (except for a fluke trip to the 1998 Finals with David Poile's players).
Pepper: I agree that, with McPhee keeping Boudreau on for another season, they would have to succeed or be dismissed together, and this one has to be the last season for achieving success (which, as with last season, I'd measure as at least an Eastern Conference Finals appearance). Or it should be.
I could also see Boudreau being let go mid-season if the team really struggles, falls out of a playoff spot, and remains on the outside well into January, but a move at that point might not give McPhee a pass for another season.
J.P.: I disagree that it's a package deal here unless McPhee makes it one and quits instead of letting Boudreau go upon pressure from above. To over-simplify (and as David alluded to above), assuming you're looking to place blame on one person, there are two possible explanations for the team's failures so far: either McPhee has the wrong coach or he has the wrong players. If the former is the case, the only way you're going to know is by seeing what another coach can do; if the latter is the case... the only way you're going to know is by seeing what another coach can't do. I don't know how you can fairly assess the team McPhee's assembled without seeing how it performs for someone other than Bruce Boudreau.
As for how long Boudreau's leash is, like I mentioned in the Boudreau Wrap, since he's back, he's back for another shot at the playoffs - what can he prove or fail to prove in the regular season? Short of the team up and quitting on him, I'd expect a full season with Boudreau behind the bench.
Becca: Before this season I would have thought another early exit – meaning anything before the Conference Finals – would have seen GMGM kick Boudreau to the curb. Since he didn’t…who knows? I’d have to assume that another failure to get out of the first or second round next spring (or a huge regression during the regular season) would be the final straw, even for McPhee.
David: Unfortunately, I can't imagine revisiting this before next spring. With how much talent the Caps have, it' hard for me to imagine them doing poorly enough in the regular season to get Boudreau canned, especially with the support he apparently enjoys, so it'll have to be a postseason thing. I would imagine one more playoff failure will be enough, but I said that last summer too.