"I sometimes think being a GM is like life. It can change fast and things can end. It's over before you want it to be. But while you are in it, it's a grind but I'm sure when it's over and you want it back, you don't want it to end. Nobody wants this to end. Not many guys walk away. They retire you for you." - George McPhee, Behind the Moves (p. 83)
Over the last 16 seasons, the Washington Capitals have undergone any number of changes, from addresses to uniforms, from captains to coaches. The one constant during that time has been the man at the helm of every hiring and firing, every draft pick and every trade, the man whose decisions have shaped and reshaped the franchise for over a decade and a half - George McPhee.
And his departure today truly marks the end of an era.
Since arriving in DC, McPhee has pulled the strings on 127 trades, and drafted 142 players, 36 of whom have gone on to play in a Caps uniform - and 14 of whom are still on the active roster. His tenure spans 1278 regular season games, 96 playoff games, seven division championships, a Presidents' Trophy and a single chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.
He's also had a front seat for - and at times, an active role in - so many disappointments over the years, the ones of the heartbreaking variety that just seem to follow this team and its fans around regardless of who is in charge. The season-ending injuries. The upsets. The draft busts. The inexperienced and ineffective coaches. The Game 7 collapses.
All of those disappointments culminated with the 2013-14 season, a season that saw the Caps unable to capture a playoff spot for the first time since missing the postseason back in 2006-07. Ultimately it was a year that could serve as a microcosm for some of the issues McPhee dealt with (or caused) throughout his time here - a team which, on paper, should have been at least competitive proved to have holes too deep to overcome, a team with yet another inexperienced coach at the helm.
It was also a year that saw its fair share of embarrassing moments for all involved, whether it was the increasingly poor outcome of the Filip Forsberg-Martin Erat swap or the multiple public trade requests or any number of issues that popped up throughout the campaign. There seemed to be a disconnect between the GM and the coach, between the coach and the team, that would necessitate the change that eventually came about.
Looking back on the last year, and on the 16 before it, it would be easy to dismiss what McPhee has done as largely unsuccessful. After all, the only team to make it to the Stanley Cup Final - or to even get out of the second round - under his watch was a team that was largely inherited from his predecessor (although he did add the finishing touches that likely got them to that point). And sports are a zero-sum business. You either win or you don't, and McPhee was simply never able to find that combination of team and coach and style that could win.
But it can, and should, be more complex than that. Because while the franchise still waits for its first championship, it's hard to look at McPhee's entire body of work and say that he didn't at least piece together contenders from time to time. That alone is hard enough; to have a team good enough (and lucky enough) to win it all, even harder. That the team has been in a downward spiral since being upset four years ago shouldn't erase what McPhee did to get them there, to put them in a position where a first-round exit could be seen as an upset in the first place.
He restored the team to viability, gave them new life with an infusion of young talent who eventually grew into this team's core and made the Caps exciting to watch again. And while McPhee may be leaving the team that has been part of his life for 17 years, his presence and his fingerprints will likely be felt on this team for quite a while. The Cup may be lacking, but that shouldn't discount all of the things that McPhee did for this franchise in the close to two decades under his watch.
But it is time for a new voice and a new mind to guide the next era of the Caps - whatever that may look like. For a franchise that has seen only five general managers in it's long history (and only two over the last 30+ years), the time has come for a fresh take, someone new to try and give the team what it's been lacking all these years. It could be a bumpy ride at first, as is usually the case when big change comes about, and Caps fans should be prepared for at least some growing pains as the team tries to find a new path.
In the meantime, we look back on the last 17 years and merely say... thanks, George. Best of luck.