From Alzner to Ward, we took a look at and graded the 2012-13 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2013-14. Now that we've covered the players and the coach, it's time to wrap things up with the guy at the top, 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.]
1. With CBA uncertainty and without a head coach, the Caps took a conservative approach (even by their standards) to free agency last summer, although they did make a bit of a splash by moving Cody Eakin to Dallas for Mike Ribeiro shortly before the market opened on unrestricted free agents. Given the roster that was in place and the tweaks made along the way, is this a team that over or underachieved this year?
Geoff: This year’s roster underachieved, but not by much considering the uncertainty before and disorder during the first half of the regular season. Washington underachieved early and overachieved in the season’s final month and a half before settling down somewhere in the middle for their first round playoff exit to the New York Rangers. George McPhee’s deadline gamble to send prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat and Michael Latta did pay dividends in the 2013 playoff pursuit, the Capitals finishing 7-1-0 with Erat in April. Whether or not they would have made the playoffs without the added veteran presence is unknown, but McPhee scores a passing grade for his deadline gamble until we can reevaluate Forsberg (and Erat’s continued contributions) down the line. Much like his team, Erat underachieved in the first four games of their Quarterfinals series before an injury ended the winger’s season.
J.P.: It’s hard to nail this one down. Like Geoff said, there’s obviously an early underachievement (that 2-8-1 start) followed by three-quarters of a season of fairly sizable overachievement. How sizable? Their 25-10-2 finish translates to a 115-point 82-game pace, which would’ve easily won the 2011-12 Presidents’ Trophy. Their goals-per-game over that stretch would’ve been good for second over the course of the full season, their goals-against 12th, their power-play in first by an even greater margin than they finished with and their penalty-kill a solid 12th. Was this roster that good? Not likely.
More likely they were the team we saw against the Rangers - one that struggled at times at both ends of the ice and occasionally on teams, a team that can play with good teams but is unlikely to dominate all but the weaker squads around the League. So I’d say they overachieved to make the playoffs, but overall they were what we thought they were - a decent team, but not world-beaters.
Kareem: I expected them to be a playoff team, but not one of the conference’s elite teams. And I didn’t expect them to make a deep run in the playoffs. So despite a topsy-turvy season, in the end the team met the expectations I had for them before the season started. If I had to break this down by personnel (in very simplistic terms), I would say that the offense overachieved, the goaltending met expectations and the defense was woeful. The fact that the Caps trotted out a defense that only had three legit NHL defensemen didn’t help - and that failure falls on McPhee’s shoulders.
2. What does GMGM need to do this off-season in order to provide Adam Oates with the best chance at success going forward?
J.P.: From the Department of Reduntant Repitition, this bulletin: the Caps need to add a top-four defenseman and figure out what they’re doing with the second-line center slot. Adding some scoring depth on the wings would be nice, but maybe that arrives late in the season via Chelyabinsk and/or Plymouth.
Geoff: As discussed by JP and Rob earlier this week, McPhee must provide the second year coach with stability down the middle (depending on how the Ribeiro situation shakes out) or an added bonus to the team’s blue line. Washington's dangerous offense gets diluted without Ribeiro providing puck possession and creativity to the team’s second wing pair and their defense is in need of better skaters, John Erskine struggling to defend his assignments with second pairing ice time. Opinions on which option is more important to strengthen vary from one observer to the next but if GMGM stutters to shuffle glaring weak points this off-season, I’ll be nervous.
3. The two biggest moves GMGM has made in the past year or so are that Ribeiro deal and, of course, the Erat trade. With as much hindsight as we can have on those two deals at this point, how do you feel about each?
Geoff: McPhee gets all the accolades from me for bringing in Ribeiro during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He had a center spot to fill behind bona fide #1 Nicklas Backstrom and did so by packaging Cody Eakin him with a pick for a proven number one/two center from Dallas. Ribeiro helped jumpstart the Caps' power play in the regular season and the move resulted in their sixth straight playoff appearance.
The Forsberg deal is still too early to tell, but McPhee again packaged an ‘if’ for a proven commodity to help the team now. With both internal and external pressure building from the Caps’ lackluster start the team benefitted and began playing better, this trade a boon to Adam Oates’ 2013 lineup. I expect to see Forsberg play and produce for the Nashville Predators but given the fact that the team soured on the youngster less than a year after his drafting I still concede the trade a win for Washington.
J.P.: It’s too early to tell on Erat (though obviously the 2013 returns weren’t nearly as positive as one would’ve hoped for), and the Ribeiro was the right deal at the right time - they make that deal again ten times out of ten. For all of the criticism that McPhee has taken over the years for being too conservative, recognize that he’s made moves for Troy Brouwer, Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat over the past two years, flipping first round picks and quality prospects along the way. Criticism of the moves are fair, of course, but digs at the GM’s passivity seem to be losing validity with each passing season.
Becca: I actually think both moves are decent prices for decent returns that filled a need at the time. Neither is perfect, obviously - you'd like to see the organization hang onto the kid that everyone claims was a steal at 11th pick overall, and it's looking more and more like the Ribeiro addition will be just one-year fix. But the team needed a second-line center (and admittedly has for a long time) and got Ribeiro, who helped carry the Caps early in the season when others weren't stepping up. And the team needed another top forward, so they brought in Erat, who could be very good if he can stay healthy. Was Forsberg a high price? Maybe. What people seem to forget, though, is that the price for a top winger is often a first-round pick, and that was Filip Forsberg; you can't get something for nothing (another aspect people seem to forget) and I thought it was a bold move by McPhee to help give his team a little more firepower, another veteran presence and a guy who is ridiculously strong on the puck.
4. How would you grade McPhee’s past year? What was his best move? His worst?
J.P.: B-minus? He seems to have made the right hire (we hope) to coach the team, and he addressed the second-line center issue... although that’s poised to rear its head again. But the team’s lack of defensive depth costing them in the playoffs couldn’t have come as a surprise, and this team continues to tread water in terms of progress, maybe making it back to where they were a couple of years ago.
His best move will hopefully end up being that Oates hire, but if we’re talking roster transactions, I’ll let someone else say Ribeiro and go with finding Steve Oleksy, a perfectly serviceable third-pairing defenseman who would be a dirt-cheap replacement for John Erskine... had they not re-signed him for two years and too much. That extension is a bad one (as the Michal Neuvirth extension may end up being), and it’s probably the worst move of the year, though the Erat trade could easily surpass it in time.
Then again, the best and worst move of the past year may have been letting Alex Semin walk...
Becca: I'm a little more generous and will go with a B. I do think the defensive depth was an issue that probably should have been addressed and wasn't, and while Oleksy performed admirably and Kundratek did his job well when he was in DC, you'd have to think that there was a better option somewhere (and I don't love the loyal soldier deal for Erskine).
I'm probably in the minority who doesn't think the Neuvirth extension is THAT bad, as it still gives the Caps a goaltending tandem - and a young, potentially very good one - for less than the Penguins are paying Marc-Andre Fleury alone next year. $2.5 million puts him at a just slightly higher pay grade than many of the older, less-talented backups in the League - and he's no ordinary backup.
But agree that the hiring of Adam Oates was a huge move and seems to be a great one so far; that alone is enough to give McPhee a decent grade for a very weird season and is definitely his best move. Worst? Probably Erskine.
Geoff: C+. Washington was one of the League’s top sixteen teams, again, and were sixty minutes away from a second round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. McPhee ultimately falls short of an above average grade because of the uncertainty following the Filip Forsberg’s move. I also wasn’t shocked to see McPhee ink Erskine to a two year extension because of the big man’s strong start, but do think his dollar figure it too high for a team’s sixth or seventh defender.
Kareem: C. They won a crappy division - wooptie-doo! If they played in the new Patrick Division they’d likely have finished no better than fourth. It’s all about the playoffs, and, yet again, the Caps failed miserably. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: McPhee has executed very well on a flawed strategy that overvalues his core players. The result? Same ol’ same ol’. GMGM failed to assemble a roster that could solve the playoff riddle. So while we may focus on the minutiae of the season - yes, he hired a good coach; yes, the Caps had a great power play; yes, Ovechkin won the Hart - it’s the playoffs that matter, and the Caps failed again.
5. Finally - and this is a biggie - if you were Ted Leonsis, would George McPhee still have his job?
J.P.: Yeah, I’d give him at least one more bite at the apple. People don’t seem to realize how hard it is to win in this League. Yes, they’ve fallen short of their ultimate goal. Repeatedly. Painfully. Embarrassingly. But McPhee has bet his job on Adam Oates - at this point, he deserves a chance to see whether or not that bet pays.
Geoff: Yes. The Capitals’ core remains despite some (once) key pieces moving and six straight playoff appearances prove McPhee’s ability to construct a winner. One year of fortuitous bounces in GMGM’s office and Washington will be the League’s winner.
Kareem: No surprise here. I do not believe McPhee should be GM of the Caps. It’s been 15 seasons with GMGM at the help - the Caps have won 6 series, three of them with David Poile’s players in 1998. That’s awful. McPhee has been hit-or-miss on assembling a great team. Don’t give him too much credit for drafting Ovechkin and Backstrom - they fell in his lap. Aside from those two give him credit for finding core guys like Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Braden Holtby, John Carlson and Karl Alzner; but recognize that there have been huge misses: a 2C hole has paralyzed this club for several seasons that, as of today, remains unresolved; several dud coaching hires, first-round draft mistakes; odd contract signings/extensions, etc.
But what bothered me most though was McPhee genuinely believing that this year’s team was a legit contender, so much that he mortgaged future assets (Forsberg) to make what he thought would be a Stanley Cup run, despite having a team that had one of the worst defensive corps in the league and a set of core players who’ve never showed much gumption in the playoffs. The Caps weren’t that close. Even if they beat the Rangers they had little chance of getting by a much better Bruins squad. Yet again, McPhee overvalued his players and his team and they responded as they always do. Time for new blood who can change the chemistry.
Becca: I say he gets at least one more year. Not every move has been perfect but even those who win the Cup don't make it through a season without at least one dumb move (at the time or in hindsight), and I think he's made more than enough good moves to counteract the bad ones.
To counteract Kareem's eternally rosy view of things, I think it's somewhat unfair to say he's had several dud coaching hires - to my memory he's had but one and it was years ago. Did Hunter get the team to the Cup? No. But he taught the team, right down to Alex Ovechkin, how to play defensively responsible hockey and got them into the playoffs (and past the defending Cup champions) by doing just that; in fact I'm not convinced that McPhee didn't hire Hunter just for that reason, to come in only temporarily in an otherwise lost season to teach this team lessons they could take with them in future seasons.
The 2C hole? It was an issue, sure, but we all walk around making these calls as if a GM merely has to pick up a phone and order whatever player he needs from a catalog. In reality things don't work like that. It requires two parties (at minimum), either the player himself agreeing to play here for an amount that makes sense cap-wise or another team agreeing to part with a player for a return that makes sense future-wise for the team. And let's not forget that top-six forwards in general, to say nothing of centers specifically, often come at a premium and are sought after by a lot of teams.
I'd also disagree that the trade of Forsberg for Erat is the kind of move only a contender makes. For one thing, a team going all-in to win the Cup usually doesn't take on a guy with another year left on his contract (for the simple reason that it's kind of dumb unless it's The Guy, because there are few things more expensive than post-Cup contracts). For another, it doesn't sound like the team was all that impressed with Forsberg as the season went on and if they could swap him out for something we all agreed the team was lacking - another top-six forward - it could improve the team. The only reason that move doesn't look as good with the benefit of hindsight is the fact that Erat was injured twice and never really got to have an impact... which is neither his fault nor McPhee's.
All in all I think GMGM has made bold moves without mortgaging the future, and I'd like to see him get a chance to take this team to the next level.