George McPhee has been tabbed as the first general manager of the NHL’s expansion Las Vegas franchise, and he hopes to build an entertaining team that can compete sooner rather than later.
Owner Bill Foley picked McPhee out of seven candidates based on his extensive experience. It’s up to McPhee to build Las Vegas from scratch when it begins play in 2017-18, a task he knows won’t be easy.
“Our mission here is clear: We’re going to build an organization and a team that people in Nevada and Las Vegas will be proud of, and we’re going to do it quickly and we’re aiming at the Stanley Cup,” McPhee said Wednesday. “It’s that simple.”
McPhee most recently served as special adviser to New York Islanders GM Garth Snow and before that spent 16 seasons as GM of the Washington Capitals. As the Capitals’ GM, McPhee oversaw a complete rebuild around star winger Alex Ovechkin that led to the team making six consecutive playoff appearances before he was fired in 2014.
“He took Washington from being a team that was scrambling and sort of turned it around, so I think that experience will be a big plus,” said Doug MacLean, who was the Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM when they entered the league in 2000. “I think it’s a real good fit.”
McPhee has a strong history of drafting and developing players, and his extensive NHL experience earned him the position over younger candidates. Foley said McPhee was one of seven candidates who interviewed for the job and got the nod over two other finalists because of his communication skills.
Foley said he wanted a GM who was focused, dedicated and had a “take-no-prisoner” attitude and feels he got that in McPhee. It also helps that they got along from the first conversation.
“We all want to win, and he’s going to win for us, but I like to have people that I really get along with and that I can communicate with,” Foley said. “We had great candidates, they were all good. I just felt there was a little something extra with George.”
Before taking over the Capitals, McPhee was vice president and director of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks, who made the Stanley Cup Final in 1994.
The 58-year-old from Guelph, Ontario, helped construct back-to-back gold-medal winners for Canada at the past two world hockey championships. Brad Treliving, his co-GM at the 2016 worlds and GM of the Calgary Flames, selfishly would have liked to see McPhee working outside the Pacific Division and the Western Conference.
“I was hoping maybe George could go back to the East, just take the team and move it to the East,” Treliving said by phone Wednesday. “You’re really happy for him. Then you take a deep breath and go, ‘Oh great, another excellent manager that you’re competing against.’ But that’s the game, everybody’s good.”
McPhee’s duties with the Islanders included scouting, which will be one of his primary jobs next season in preparation for the launch of the still-unnamed Las Vegas franchise. McPhee expects to begin hiring staff next season and will spend the 2016-17 season watching plenty of games to find players at the amateur and pro levels.
The NHL’s board of governors unanimously approved the expansion team for a fee of $500 million during its meeting in Las Vegas in late June. The team can begin making transactions in June 2017, and it will also take part in an expansion draft that month.
MacLean, who was hamstrung by various factors including a second team in the Minnesota Wild during the 2000 expansion process, expects McPhee to have it a bit easier based on the NHL forcing stricter rules on how many players can be protected.
“He’s going to get a head start versus other expansion teams because of the new rules,” MacLean said. “It’s going to be an interesting challenge because it’s different from any other expansion in the past because he’s got the (salary) cap where he’s got to spend a certain amount of money. He’s got to spend a certain amount and he’s got to stay away from as many bad contracts as he can but try to pick up some talent along the way.”
McPhee said tearing down and rebuilding a team can be “negative fun” and called taking over a brand new team a phenomenal opportunity.
“Here you come in and it’s a clean slate and you get to pick everyone in your organization,” McPhee said. “This is what every GM wants to experience at some point in his career.”