From Alzner to Wideman, we took a look at and graded the 2011-12 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign and who might be back in 2012-13. Now that we've covered the players, 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.]
Last summer George McPhee brought in Troy Brouwer, Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, and Joel Ward, seemingly in an attempt to make the Capitals a better defensive team and more difficult to play against. At the start of the season, it looked like this was the best Caps roster we'd seen in quite a long time, but obviously things didn't turn out like that over the course of the regular season. What went wrong, was the chemistry wrong, were the players not as good as we thought, was it bad luck?
Rob Parker: Some of it was certainly bad luck, better goaltending in the late fall and Bruce Boudreau probably isn't fired when he was. Further, the injuries were undoubtedly bad luck, specifically the one to Backstrom. It's hard to plan for that kind of thing. But the underlying problems were still there; I said a coaching change should have been made after the Tampa Bay series and we've long noted how much trouble the Caps would be in if Backstrom went down with injury, so I don't think you can say it was entirely luck. I think it's easy now to say that the team wasn't as good as most people thought they were, but that's also not a complete explanation. Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin both had poor individual years, by the standards they've set for themselves. But missing Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green for a long time is going to hurt any team. Carlson didn't play well most of the year, but in the playoffs he proved he's still a good player. The skater additions were never guys that were going to be huge impact guys. They were for depth and were mostly role players so it really shouldn't have had a huge impact on the overall make-up of the team. I'm not a huge believer in chemistry, so I don't think that's where you can point the finger. At the end of the day I think it's a mix of "not enough talent" and "bad luck."
JP: I go back-and-forth on the talent issue. On the one hand, I think the general, national perception that the Caps are stacked is inaccurate. But at the same time, you look at the lineup and you have a couple of elite wings, an elite pivot, enough defensively-responsible grinders with scoring upside to fill out a good third-line, and enough pluggers to be set on the fourth-line up front. On the back-end, it looked like (and, for the most part was) a solid one-through-seven. Then you had an elite goaltender and an up-and-comer in net (and another behind him). On paper, this was "the best Caps roster we'd seen in quite a long time."
But, of course, the games aren't played on paper, and watching the season play out, there was the bad luck (not just the injuries, but the "puck luck" as well, early on - a few more saves in November and Bruce Boudreau might still be coaching this squad), but it was clear that the second-line center was and is still a gaping void (but really wasn't any worse when Backstrom went down - the drop-off from Marcus Johansson to Mathieu Perreault, if there was one, was minimal), and they perhaps lacked another skill forward. Put another way, how many legitimate top-six forwards did this team have? Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin, sure. Brouwer and/or Brooks Laich can play the role of "third best forward" on a top-two line adequately, but when Backstrom went down, this team was playing with a pair of Alexes and then a triage unit on the scoring lines. They simply had a talent deficit. That's where they weren't as good as we'd perhaps thought, and it all comes back to the second-line center.
Kareem E.: What went wrong is that, for whatever reason, the magic that the Young Guns had is gone. They're still good, but they're not going to ever produce 370 points among them like they did in 2009-10. And it was glaringly evident after last season that this core group could not (and will never) replicate those sublime performances in the playoffs when more was on the line. It also didn't help that McPhee ignored the 2C position yet again. Instead of addressing those two pressing issues, McPhee focused on on building out bottom 6 depth, a recipe that didn't pan out the way we wanted it to this year. Add to it an ill-timed mid-season coaching change and bringing in a new coach who didn't match the style of play to the players he had and we get what we get: another disappointing exit from the playoffs to a decent-but-nothing-special Rangers team. Just like last year vs Tampa. And the year before vs Montreal. So this wasn't bad luck. This was the result of a flawed roster coupled with the failure to make tough (and somewhat obvious) personnel and coaching decisions last offseason.
Unlike many past off-seasons, there are several big money soon-to-be free agents on the Caps roster, meaning there could be more flexibility to make major roster changes. Having seen how the last season played out, what does George McPhee need to do this summer in order to right the ship and get the Capitals back on top of the Southeast Division (or whatever division they play in next season) and the Eastern Conference? Which guys should stay, which guys should go, and what kind of new blood should the team look for?
RP: I think the two areas of need for this team are talent in the top 6 and speed. The Caps aren't a particularly fast team, and if they want to play that up-tempo game that McPhee has talked about then they'll need more speed throughout the lineup. You look at New Jersey and Los Angeles and both of those teams had a lot more speed and had some very good top-6 depth. The Caps have enough to slug their way through another regular season, but if they want to really be contenders they need to find a way to put together two dangerous lines. I think Semin should be and will be gone, and he's the highest paid free agent on the team. Green should stay for at least a year to see if he can get over the injury problems, and I think he will stay. The rest of the free agents are role players, and with McPhee already telling Knuble and Halpern they won't be back I think we'll see some turnover in the bottom 6. Ideally the Caps focus on bringing in guys that can skate and play both ends of the ice. They don't necessarily all need to be 60+ point guys, but if you can get some players that can play tough minutes and still produce offensively then you help everyone else out throughout the lineup. Right now it looks like outside Backstrom the guys that can score can't/don't really play defense and the guys that play defense don't give you much in the way of offense. Building a good two-way second line would be a huge boon for the team.
JP: I talked about the skill deficit among the top-six above, and if Semin leaves, that just exacerbates the problem (which in no way should be construed as me advocating re-signing Semin). I'd think they need to add, at an absolute minimum, two legitimate top-six forwards, with one of those being a center in order to be a contender, whether that happens this summer or during the season. And whereas in the past I thought they could get away with a second-line center who was perhaps a better fit as a third-line center on a contending team (think Antoine Vermette), with the potential loss of possession-driver Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom's concussion concerns, what they need is a second-line center who is good enough to fill-in on the top line. And while I've got my wishlist out, I'll add a mobile bottom-four defenseman to replace Dennis Wideman (assuming he won't return) and insure against another prolonged Mike Green absence.
Becca H: I agree that addressing the top-six is a top priority for the summer, especially if Semin leaves (which it appears he probably will) - the team just has too many guys who in a good year are putting up around 20 goals, and if Ovechkin has another slumping season or Backstrom deals with more injuries the number of guys who can produce at a high level is down to zero. A center who can fill in on that top line when needed and another scoring winger, maybe two, should be a focus.
Agree with JP that another mobile defenseman should also be on the list, as Mike Green - who should stay at least one more year - still needs to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season. I think the continued development of Dmitry Orlov and what should be a bigger role on the team will help fill that void a bit, but the Caps have very little depth on defense beyond him and the rotating seventh defensemen of John Erskine and Jeff Schultz. Gee, Ryan Suter would look purty in red...
Beyond all that, and at a slightly lower priority level, would be some sort of veteran presence. No, the "young guns" aren't really "young" anymore (as far as pro athletes go), but with the losses of Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern (and probably Wideman) there doesn't seem to be that experienced voice of someone who has been there before. Obviously not being in the locker room I'm not sure how much of an impact someone like that does or doesn't have... but considering how much players, coaches and GMs talk about the importance of that voice, I have to believe it's at least a little bit of a necessity.
The other major storyline from the season was coaching. Things were so bad that the most successful coach in franchise history (by win percentage) was fired before December, replaced by a franchise legend. Given the benefits of hindsight, how do you feel about that coaching change now?
RP: I've said all along that I wish they'd have made the change over the summer when McPhee could do a more comprehensive coaching search, allow the coach more time to implement his system, and allow the coach to give input on personnel decisions, insofar as that is practical and appropriate. By waiting until the season was underway it really limited McPhee's options (of course, if he knew Dale Hunter would be the next coach then maybe options weren't important to him) and made Hunter's job much harder. As far as the transition to Hunter, I think everyone is happy that the Caps were competitive in 14 straight playoff games, but I don't think that should obscure how bad the offense was during his tenure. Breaking bad habits seemed to be a focus of Hunter's, and to that end he was successful (though we'll see how much that carries forward), but I don't think having an inept offense and trying to win coin flip games is a recipe for success these days. The change had to happen, but I think it could have been handled better and I don't think the on-ice results were ideal.
JP: Yep. We touched on this quite a bit in our season-ending roundtable. It's pretty straightforward to me - a change needed to be made and by the time they made it, they were left building the plane while it was already rolling down the runway for takeoff. You get what you get at that point. Playing "coin-flips" against more-talented teams like Boston and the Rangers is all well and good, but why give Carolina and the Islanders that same chance? I don't think we saw everything Dale Hunter was capable of as a coach, but I think we saw enough, to be blunt.
KE: I agree with Rob and JP. The way this all played out, it did not, in my opinion, make George McPhee look good. Hiring a coach one third of the way through the season - one who didn't have any intention of staying past the season AND who instituted a completely different style of play - was a recipe for underachievement. The coaching change should have occurred last off-season.
Then, before the NHL season was over and Caps fans got a chance to really evaluate Dale Hunter, he stepped down and returned to the family business, running the London Knights. How does that decision sit with you?
RP: Taking all the things we've been told at face value, I'm fine with the decision. In fact, I think it may be a blessing in disguise. I was worried that the split between Hunter and the Caps would be messy (it was always inevitable) and tarnish the reputation or relationship of a franchise legend. By splitting the way they did all parties save face, the successful playoff run allows Hunter to leave holding his head high, and now the Caps can search for a coach that may play a style more suited for success in the contemporary NHL. If Hunter's lessons on defense and teamwork can carry forward, that will be gravy, but I suspect those lessons will only last as long as the new coach makes them last.
JP: The way things ended, I'm left with the feeling that Hunter took the job as something of a favor to McPhee and never really intended to stick it out long-term. Did he ever look truly comfortable? Or happy? I think the split has the potential to be a very good thing for the franchise, but only if they make the right hire next.
What kind of coach do you think GMGM should try to find for the team going forward? What are the traits that are most important to you?
RP: Ideally he'd get a coach with some level of NHL experience, but that's not the most crucial aspect; I do think the new coach certainly needs to have some experience coaching professionals, though. If I got to pick my perfect coach they'd have Dale's calm demeanor; I think that aspect has been overlooked in terms of how it helped the team maintain an even keel. I would also prefer a coach that is more focused on systems and X's and O's rather than a more purely motivational coach (though all coaches have to be able to do both to a degree). I'd like to see an aggressive team that plays good defense. I want a heavy forecheck and a team that wants to skate forward, not backward, but is always cognizant of their defensive responsibilities. Of course, every coach available has some warts (or they'd already be hired and named Mike Babcock), so George McPhee will have to choose which warts he can live with.
BH: I'm with Rob (and Mike Knuble) in that the next coach should be a blend of what we've already seen in recent years. Someone who knows how to light a fire under the stars without putting off the grinders, who tries to motivate but not at the expense of the system, someone who can find a balance between the plodding defensive style of Hunter and the up-tempo, high risk, high reward style of early Boudreau. He needs to be able to maintain the sense of team that these guys had at the end of last season without sacrificing the stuff that makes hockey exciting.
...I'm not sure such a coach exists, to be honest - particularly among the guys who have NHL experience - so here's hoping GMGM is able to unearth a diamond in the rough so to speak.
JP: Priority number one has to be maximizing their return on investment on Alex Ovechkin. Everything else - including winning - will flow from that. Get someone fresh, someone smart, someone prepared, and someone that knows the difference between accountability and punishment. And for the love of all that is holy, get these guys having fun again.
As far as the timing of the hiring, what dates or events is it most important to have a coach in place for? Should GMGM pick a coach that fits the roster or find the right coach and then mold the roster to fit the coach? And what kind of input do you think the new coach should have regarding personnel decisions (draft, FA signings, trades) this summer?
JP: The sooner the better, all else equal, as it wouldn't be bad to have his input around the draft and certainly around the open of free agency. But it's likely that McPhee has a vision of the direction in which he wants to take the franchise and will hire a coach that conforms to that rather than trying to mold his roster and organization to his new coach, so really, it might not matter when they make the hire. Hell, they might not even start the season on time, so there's no rush. Kidding. I think.
RP: I'd like to have the coach in place by development camp. Even July 1 isn't a drop-dead date for me. I don't think the coach needs to, or in most cases should, have a ton of influence over personnel decisions. I think assembling a team and coaching a team are different skill-sets so you don't need the coach to put the team together. Obviously the coach and GM have to be on the same page, but I think if George McPhee knows what kind of team he wants to have he'll be able to pursue the right kind of players on July 1 without knowing exactly who the coach is. But development camp is the first time the new coach gets to work with players, albeit non-NHL players, and start getting players familiar with the system. Some of the players in development camp will (hopefully) be playing for the Caps within a couple years, and the Caps have tried to have a degree of systems synergy with the Hershey Bears over the last several seasons. It's not the end of the world if it takes longer to sign the right coach, but that's where my preference lies.
BH: I'd agree with both Rob and JP that early July is as late as I'm comfortable going. July 1 would be great because, while I agree that the coach shouldn't have a ton of influence over personnel, an organization with a lot of question marks (or at least one major one) isn't going to be the draw that a team with an established coach and system is going to be. Players, particularly the ones the Caps should be targeting, aren't going to want to commit to a team whose style and personality is completely unknown.
But if not by July 1, by the following week with the start of Development Camp I'd like to see the guy in place. As Rob mentioned, the synergy between the Caps and Bears has been key in making the transition smoother from one level to another, but it's also a time when new players to the organization begin acclimating themselves, when the prospects are given a sense of what will be expected of them when they try out in the fall or a few years down the line. And to a lesser degree it's a chance for the new coach to get used to the team and the area or even for any veterans still in town to maybe get to know the guy a little before the summer.
Finally, it's been a tumultuous and busy year for George McPhee, so how would you grade him for the season? What was his best move on the year, and what was his worst move (or non-move)?
RP: I think it's easy to say the best move was signing Tomas Vokoun, but that was a bit of a gift that fell into his lap and at the end of the year Vokoun played all of zero playoff games for the Caps. The team may not have made the playoffs if not for some of his strong stretches of play during the regular season, but considering how it all worked out it's hard to say that was a big impact move. I'd say the best move came last summer when he stuck to his guns and got Karl Alzner to sign a two year deal for a 1.285 million dollar cap hit. It's unfortunate for Alzner, as he's certainly out-performing that deal, but it's a great deal for the Caps and it allows them to spend more money in other places to try to round out the team.
The worst deal was the deadline inactivity. I'm glad that he didn't try to give up a lot of future assets for a rental, but the team was clearly not good enough to make a serious run for the Cup. I would love to have seen McPhee make a move one way or the other: either put together a package that could have gotten Jeff Carter or start moving some of the UFA players. Carter isn't a rental, he's locked in on a great deal so it's a move that helps now and in the future. With Carter, I think the Caps immediately would have become a favorite in the East, but that ship sailed. I don't think it's fair to criticize him for not moving Vokoun based on Vokoun's late season injury, though that does make it look worse, but at the time we knew Vokoun wasn't enough to get the team to the Cup and he could have brought a solid return. The same goes for Wideman and Semin. People will say "they probably don't make the playoffs" without Vokoun/Semin/Wideman, but I still would have liked to see some movement to help build for the future. Ultimately, McPhee didn't do anything to bring the team closer to the Cup, now or in the future.
JP: Hard to argue with the Alzner deal - what a stud. But since you went there, I'll go with the Semyon Varlamov trade. McPhee turned an RFA who was very unlikely to sign into a first- and a second-round pick (memo to Colorado: you could have signed him to a deal worth over $4 million per year and only given up a first and a third), and still had the organizational depth at the position to not miss a beat (Vokoun deal notwithstanding). No matter what Varlamov does in his career and what becomes of those picks, that deal itself was a big win.
On the flip-side, I agree that not trading Wideman was the worst move, and I'd have said that before he was awful against the Bruins and after he was pretty good against the Rangers. With Green returning, the Caps had a "puck-moving" All-Star blueliner who was (presumably) going to walk in July - probably the most sought-after commodity on the market - and they held onto him. I'd also give an honorable mention to not being able to convince Evgeny Kuznetsov to come over for next season (despite the great lure of Alex Ovechkin and whatnot), but in many ways that whole situation is McPhee as a victim of his own success - if the prospect wasn't as good as he is, he wouldn't have had such an attractive option in Russia. C'est la vie... and stay tuned.
KE: I am lukewarm to McPhee's performance as a GM since the lockout. Nothing changed my opinion based on this season. He's not bad, but he is not a world-beater. Sure, the Caps are one of the few teams to make the playoffs five years in a row, but Ovechkin and Backstrom fell in his lap and it would be difficult to not be an upper-half-of-the-NHL team with those two players. That said, I'm not a fan of sticking with the Young Gun strategy and thought that one of them (or even two, if the price was right) could have been moved following the Tampa collapse in 2011. But no trades were made and no message was sent. I also wasn't a fan of keeping Boudreau around to start the season either, which we've already discussed. My final contention with McPhee's season was standing pat at the deadline That really sealed it for me. An overly risk averse profile coupled with overvaluing players within the organization has meant missing out on opportunities to make bold moves. We saw Boston in 2011 and LA this year upgrade throughout the season on their way to Cup runs. The Caps sat on their bums and did nothing. Skeptics of my ideology will say "at least the Caps won't get fleeced", but my take is if you know that a team is missing central pieces then roll the dice every once in a while. Not in DC though. McPhee has continued to stick to the same risk-averse script....and the annual spring-time heartbreaks continue. (Folks, it won't change next year either if McPhee is steadfast in his approach.) Ultimately, I would grade McPhee's season a "C", or in Japers Rink terms, a 4.
BH: The best move in my mind was the Varlamov trade, hands down. It wasn't the fleecing some people thought it was, because I think the Avs got a good young goalie who will help them in the future, but the Caps were able to take someone who wasn't going to play in the organization and pick up two high picks in a potentially deep draft this weekend. It was exactly the right move for the team, present and future.
As for worst move/non-move... at the time I defended the lack of movement on Wideman and Semin because I think unloading guys at the deadline smacks of giving up on the season and I'm not a fan of that. And surprise, surprise, I was more optimistic about the team's chances than others (and still believe a win over the Rangers - which wasn't exactly a far-fetched notion - catapults this team into the Stanley Cup Finals). With the benefit of hindsight, though, knowing that a) neither would perform well in the playoffs, b) both would likely be gone on July 1 and c) the Caps would be bounced in Round 2, I can see why that was ultimately a poor decision. I also would have liked to see GMGM take a run at someone like Carter at the deadline, but I'm not so sure he didn't - it takes two teams to make a trade, just like two parties are needed to sign free agents, and not being in the room with GMGM at the time, we can't pretend to know what was and wasn't offered for whom.
All in all I'd say GMGM earned a solid B for his work this year. I think the pieces he brought in over the summer were good, strong additions to the team. That all of them didn't entirely work out is not, in my mind, a knock on his performance overall; the Vokoun deal was lucky but he was smart enough to be in a position to take advantage of it, the Ward deal paid off in the playoffs, Halpern and Hamrlik brought some good veteran experience to the team - it was all good, on paper. And that's really all a GM can do, examine what the team theoretically should look like and hope that the coach motivates a performance and the players respond.