George McPhee was one season removed from running the Capitals and one season away from constructing the Vegas Golden Knights into potentially the best NHL story of all time when general manager Garth Snow and the Islanders gave him a chance to get back in the league.
Perhaps his one season as an Islanders special adviser in 2015-16 helped McPhee in his current role as Vegas GM.
Capping their very first season of existence, the expansion Golden Knights will host the Washington Capitals on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena . . . in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“The big thing was the first day Garth and I met, he completely opened his books and showed me everything he does and the way he does things,” McPhee, 59, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December. “I thought it was a real good move by him to be transparent, to be trustworthy and to open right up. I was ready to reciprocate in kind and told him everything I knew about my previous operations.”
As Washington GM from 1997 until he was fired April 26, 2014, McPhee acquired 13 players who have played in this season’s playoffs for the Capitals. Current Capitals GM Brian MacLellan first worked under McPhee. The two grew up together in Guelph, Ontario, and were teammates in junior hockey and in the NHL.
McPhee was hired as the Golden Knights’ GM on July 13, 2016. A league source said the Islanders had not considered replacing Snow with McPhee. Instead, McPhee, aided by the NHL’s generous expansion draft rules — it behooved the league to have the first pro franchise in Las Vegas be competitive immediately — built an instant contender through savvy expansion draft selections and trades with other teams looking to protect assets from being plucked.
“I think this is the greatest story, just as a hockey fan,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said. “Nobody envisioned this . . . I’ve known [McPhee] a long time. He’s an honest guy. He’s smart. George has got no ego.”
Shero also has experience in constructing an expansion team; he was the assistant GM under David Poile for the Nashville Predators in 1998. He said though the expansion draft rules were vastly more restrictive in 1998, the concept was the same.
“There was one word, I think, for Nashville and for Vegas, and that’s ‘opportunity,’ ” Shero said. “That was David Poile’s word.”
For the Predators, that meant current Capitals coach Barry Trotz getting his first opportunity to coach an NHL team. And the equipment manager getting his first job.
For Vegas, two great examples of players taking advantage of opportunities are center William Karlsson, 25, and defenseman Nate Schmidt, 26, both of whom were selected in the expansion draft.
Columbus, seeking to protect other players, sent a first- and second-round pick to Vegas so McPhee would pick Karlsson and take on the final three seasons of David Clarkson’s seven-year, $36.8-million deal. Karlsson centered the top line and had career highs in goals (43) and assists (35).
McPhee surprised many by not taking goalie Philipp Grubauer from the Capitals — he already had selected No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from the Penguins — and instead took Schmidt, who blossomed into a top-pair defenseman.
McPhee also made a smart deal with Snow in which Vegas acquired the 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft, a second-round pick in 2019, prospect Jake Bischoff and Mikhail Grabovski, who had one season left on a four-year, $20-million deal, so Snow could ensure that forwards Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome and defensemen Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey would not be taken in the expansion draft. Instead, Vegas took goalie Jean-Francois Berube.
Stanley Cup Final
Golden Knights vs. Capitals
Game 1: at Las Vegas, Monday, Ch. 4, 8 p.m.
Game 2: at Las Vegas, Wednesday, NBCSN, 8 p.m.
Game 3: at Washington, Saturday, NBCSN, 8 p.m.
Game 4: at Washington, June 4, Ch. 4, 8 p.m.
*Game 5: at Las Vegas, June 7, Ch. 4, 8 p.m.
*Game 6: at Washington, June 10, Ch. 4, 8 p.m.
*Game 7: at Las Vegas, June 13, Ch. 4, 8 p.m.