Two Washington Capitals General Managers: The Consistency of Differences

Patrick Smith

The Peerless looks back at more than three decades of consistency in the general manager's chair and where the differences between the two men who occupied that chair lay.

On August 30, 1982, the top song in the U.S. was "Eye of the Tiger." "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" was the number one movie at the box office. The price of gasoline was sitting at about $1.30 a gallon. And the Washington Capitals named David Poile general manager of the club.

A lot of songs and movies have occupied the top spot in popularity since then, and gasoline certainly is no longer a buck-thirty a gallon. But in the almost 32 years since the hiring of David Poile, the chair in the general manager's office has been used by only two individuals - Poile and George McPhee.

Another chapter in the history of the Capitals might be ending with this season, and given the uncommon stability that has reigned in the general manager's office and the similarities in length of tenure between the two men, it got us to thinking about their respective tenures. Let's line them up side-by-side...

Poile_mcphee_medium

It really is striking how similar their tenures are overall. But there are some significant differences:

-- Poile never had (or was never seemingly called upon) to implement a restart-reset-rebuild of the magnitude George McPhee implemented on behalf of the club in the 2003-2008 period. The flip side of that is the 14-straight playoff seasons from 1982-1983 through 1995-1996.

-- In those 14 straight seasons under Poile, the Caps were a model of consistency. Take away the lockout-shortened 1994-1995 season, and the Caps performed in a tight range, finishing with between 38 and 48 wins ten times in 13 full seasons.

-- There's some merit in noting that McPhee inherited a team good enough to go to the Stanley Cup Final after he took over for Poile in June 1997. But while the buffet was well-stocked, the food might have been a bit stale, too. It was an aging team. The Caps' 1997-1998 team that went to the Stanley Cup Final had 18 players dress for them that season who would see their 30th (or older) birthday by year's end. That was not going to be a recipe for success going forward. The Caps missed the playoffs in McPhee's second season and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs the next two seasons.

-- Age was a key theme in McPhee's early tenure, and it didn't appear as if that issue was addressed (at least adequately) during those early years under McPhee's watch. The second of the two playoff teams referenced above contained 19 players who were 30 years old and above by the end of the season.

-- This brings us back around to similarities, if a bit askew. Both McPhee and Poile give the outward impression of being buttoned-down, by the book, businesslike in their approach. But both seemed to have a bit of the riverboat gambler in them, too. It might have been borne out of necessity, at times... but it was there nevertheless.

-- Take Poile, for example. He came to a club that couldn't draw flies, despite stinking more than a landfill in July before his arrival. The team was in jeopardy of dissolving or moving. So, ten days after being named to his new job with the Caps, he trades a number one overall draft pick (Rick Green) and a number two overall draft pick (Ryan Walter) for four players. And not just any four players, but three players (Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, and Brian Engblom) who were two years removed from a Stanley Cup championship and a young prospect (Craig Laughlin). That would be a blockbuster at any time, but on your tenth day on the job?

-- Then there was McPhee, who continued to work with an increasingly aging team. One might have looked at that club and started seeding it with younger players, but when a trade opportunity knocked in the summer of 2001, McPhee ran to the door. In the guts of the trade he sent three prospects - a seventh-overall draft pick (Kris Beech), a 29th-overall pick (Michal Sivek), and a 34th-overall pick (Ross Lupaschuk) - to the Pittsburgh Penguins for the defending Art Ross Trophy winner, Jaromir Jagr. No playing it safe or piecemeal move there.

-- However, while there were those bombshell deals in both men's resume that reflect their similarity, their late tenures seem to have some differences. In Poile's last three seasons at the Caps' helm (1994-1995 through 1996-1997), he implemented nine player-for-player trades (source: Caps Media Guide):

  • June 28, 1994: Caps acquired Rob Pearson and Philadelphia's 1st round pick (previously acquired, Nolan Baumgartner) in the 1994 Entry Draft from Toronto for Mike Ridley and St. Louis' 1st round pick in the 1994 Entry Draft (previously acquired, Eric Fichaud).
  • January 18, 1995: Caps acquired Mark Tinordi and Rick Mrozik from Dallas for Kevin Hatcher.
  • February 10, 1995: Caps acquired Warren Rychel from Los Angeles for Randy Burridge.
  • January 29, 1996: Caps acquired Denis Chasse from St. Louis for Rob Pearson.
  • February 15, 1996: Caps acquired Stewart Malgunas from Winnipeg for Denis Chasse.
  • March 8, 1996: Caps acquired Todd Krygier from Anaheim for Mike Torchia.
  • November 2, 1996: Caps acquired Curtis Leschyshyn and Chris Simon from Colorado for Keith Jones and a 1st round pick in the 1998 Entry Draft (Scott Parker).
  • November 9, 1996: Caps acquired Andrei Nikolishin from Hartford for Curtis Leschyshyn.
  • March 1, 1997: Caps acquired Bill Ranford, Adam Oates and Rick Tocchet from Boston for Jason Allison, Jim Carey, Anson Carter and a 3rd round pick in the 1997 Entry Draft (Lee Goren).

Meanwhile, McPhee has implemented 14 player-for-player trades over his last three seasons (source: Caps Media Guide, ESPN, TSN.ca):

We focused on player-for-player deals, eschewing the inclusion of player-for-picks sorts of deals, because of the lack of symmetry between the GM's. In his last three years in Washington, Poile moved players such as Dmitri Khristich and Byron Dafoe for draft picks (ok...bad example, since that draft pick became Alexandre Volchkov, one of the more famous top-five draft picks in NHL history). On the other hand, McPhee moved picks that brought a Troy Brouwer or a Dustin Penner to DC. In that respect the two GM's were significantly different in their late tenure.

Back to the player-for-player deals. Those are known asset-for-known asset types of transactions, not the sort that involve the unknown future of a draft pick. The expectation is for sooner contributions from the arriving players. And in this respect the differences between the two GMs is evident as well. Yes, the eras are obviously different, separated by more than a decade with different personnel management rules and culture. But there remains the fact that while Poile made fewer deals, they seemed longer in substance.

There was a higher volume of trades involving a swap of an established player for an established player in Poile's last three seasons, a "Tinordi for Hatcher," a "Simon for Jones." And, there was the big one at the end, the six-player deal with Boston in March 1997.

For McPhee, the deals are of greater volume, but seem more of the small-bore nature that fill holes or stock the farm club at Hershey. Perhaps this is a reflection of satisfaction with the club that was assembled. Perhaps it is a product of not being able to assume much, if any additional salary cap (a restraint under which Poile did not have to operate with the Caps, although he might have had his own constraints imposed by ownership). Perhaps there are other factors.

However, there isn't much there in terms of major deals - the Ribeiro/Eakin deal, the Erat/Forsberg trade, and the Neuvirth/Halak deal stand out as some of the few one might classify as "major". However, two of those were trade-deadline deals involving Caps assets that became redundant (Neuvirh) or fell out of favor (Forsberg) that brought back assets that might have (but then again, might not have) been part of the Caps' longer term plans.

This is but a snapshot of what is the essential history of the Capitals as a relevant team in then NHL, due in no small part to the work the two general managers over the last three decades have done. Missing in this look back are important considerations like their history in the draft. As time permits, we will try to address those factors down the road.

However, even from this look back, it is apparent that the Caps have had uncommon stability in the general manager's office over the past three decades. That is not to say that the incumbents of the position were cut from the same cloth. There are similarities, there are differences. What seems to be the lasting similarity between the two, however, is that after all the deals, all the drafts, all the decisions, fans who have followed the club for those last three decades are still looking to celebrate that first Stanley Cup.

Other odds and ends...

-- Alex Ovechkin is one of five players in NHL history to score 50 or more goals five times in his first nine seasons in the league. The others are: Mike Bossy (9 times), Wayne Gretzky (8), Guy Lafleur (6), and Brett Hull (5).

-- Ovechkin became the 30th player in NHL history age 28 or older to score 50 goals in a season. Scoring goals is a young man's pursuit, even by the standards of professional hockey.

-- Since Nicklas Backstrom came into the league in 2007-2008 he has recorded 60 or more assists three times, including this season. Know how many other players have done it? Two - Henrik Sedin (5 times) and Joe Thornton (4). No, not Sidney Crosby. He's done it twice in that span.

-- Last season, Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro were the first teammates to finish one-two in power play points since Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson did it for Ottawa in 2003-2004. Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin are one-two this season with three games left to play, making it possible for the Caps to do it in consecutive years under Adam Oates.

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