Thursday night, George McPhee provided some insight into his role as General Manager of the Washington Capitals, touching on the current state of the club, what he thought of Dale Hunter's coaching style, the decision-making behind new head coach Adam Oates' staff and other issues surrounding the club. McPhee spoke to a group of 500 USA Hockey coaches from across the country at the Renaissance Downtown.
McPhee revealed to the group - which included former Capitals forward Matt Herr, who jokingly pointed out that McPhee traded him in 2001 - that while he was very impressed with Oates' interviews during the hiring process, he did have some questions when Oates wanted to bring on board former Capitals defenseman Calle Johansson.
"It starts with your head coach, and [you] determine who your head coach is and what his strengths and weaknesses [are] and then try cover some of those weaknesses with people around him. We have a first-year coach in Adam Oates, brilliant player, really talks the game unlike anyone I've ever talked to, brilliant interview.
"He wanted Calle Johansson as an assistant, and I was a little concerned about that because he didn't have the experience coaching either .... The third guy that we had to get was a guy with experience. We got Tim Hunter, who's been behind the bench for 15 years. He's watched a lot of video, watched a lot of practices, and can help in that regard."
McPhee also talked about changing coaches in recent years, and said that he felt former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau's time hadn't come after a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals despite media pressure for a change, saying he didn't think it was fair.
"We played pretty well under Bruce Boudreau, liked him a lot, loved the way he coached. There were a lot of people calling for a change after we lost a year ago, and I didn't think it was his fault. I felt in Round 2 that year with Tampa, we lost 3 of our top 4 defensemen and just weren't good enough on the blueline. We were missing two in that first series and in the second we were up to three and four in some games. We weren't good enough.
"People were calling for a change. I didn't think it was right ... I tell you it's hard. It's hard when you feel like the only one who's got the guy's back."
But the GM noticed a change once the team returned to Kettler that September.
"I really to be quite honest, I didn't feel like a change was necessary after the season, but when we got back to camp, I felt it then.
"Something didn't feel right then. It had something to do with here we are, it's now our fifth year with this coach, we're a good team, but we haven't pushed through the playoffs, what's going to be different this year? We tried accountability from the players ... we tried to change things a little bit without changing personnel. Things didn't go the way we hoped."
After a fast start to the 2011-12 season, it was obvious by November that the players had tuned Boudreau out.
"You can see when the players aren't with this coach anymore. It's pretty obvious."
The Capitals brought in Dale Hunter - who surprised even McPhee with his commitment to defense.
"With Dale Hunter, for example, I didn't expect him to play that defensively. Once we got going, I allowed the coaches to coach the way they wanted to coach. Their necks are on the line, I don't want to be telling them what to do and turn around and fire them for making the wrong decisions. It's your team, do what you have to do. I try not to talk about what I'm seeing unless they ask.
"My history has been [to] leave these guy alone. I'd like to be like Darcy Regier in Buffalo and rely on one guy [Lindy Ruff] and keep going. Because I don't like [firing people]. When you become a manager, you fantasize about a lot of things, having this and that, you never think about having to fire people. That's not what you think about on the job. It's an awful thing to do, you try not to hurt too many people but sometimes it happens."
When speaking of his players, McPhee noted Alexander Ovechkin's evolution into a more physical player, and also noted who he thought was the "perfect player."
"We've got a guy like Alex Ovechkin, and I don't know if I ever saw him throw any hits when he was in amateur hockey. He played the game, played hard and scored lots of goals, and really developed the hitting when he got to the NHL level.
"He's been in the league for seven years, he's been in the top 10 in hits every year for seven years and is one of the leading scorers. The hitting issue, I don't [know] that he was ever taught [it], I know he's been suspended a few times for hits, but for the amount of hits he's had in his career, he might be one of the best hitters in the league. Of all the hits he's delivered, he's only been penalized [suspended] for three of them that went wrong.
"If you get the [stars] that are coachable, they're the best ones to have, obviously. I think the teams that win have the best ones. And those guys, believe it or not, are the most humble guys. If you look at a guy like Nick Lidstrom, I think he might be the perfect player. Played 22 years, never got hurt, played 30 minutes a game, played the game smart. In his own way, he was a great leader for that club even though he wasn't a vocal guy. ... A lot of leadership in star players is being a regular guy."
McPhee also noted some of the gambles at the draft table, noting that even though the Capitals were ready to pick Braden Holtby in the second round of the 2008 NHL draft, they gambled he'd fall to them in a later round.
"We were really high on Holtby, and we thought he should go in the 2nd round, but one of the things you learn about the draft when sometimes there's not a lot of chatter about somebody, you can get him later. There weren't a lot of people talking about him, so we gambled a bit and took him in the fourth round."
The GM said he liked the way Holtby stayed composed, although he had to work on stopping the puck.
"What we liked about him was the character and compete. He wanted to be in the net, he's a real hard-working guy, didn't wilt under pressure ... and he's more character than talent there. He's not a highly skilled guy, but he competes. His teammates like playing in front of him because the way he battles. We had to work on him to focus on him stopping the puck because at the junior level and early on in the American and East Coast League, if there was a fight in front of the crease, he wanted to be involved and swing his blocker, and high-five guys after they had the fight. Your job is to stop pucks, and let's not worry about everything else.
"What was interesting in the Boston series, there was that one [play] in front, he pushed [Rich Peverly] down [in Game 7], the guy turned around and swung his stick, and it was then I kind of knew we sort of had him. [Holtby] didn't overreact, he was calm, under control. That's how we got him. ... Hopefully he has an impact this season."
After his speech, in a brief one-on-one interview, McPhee was asked if he was done with changes for the new season.
"We don't anticipate any changes. We really like the squad we have. I think we're a real well-balanced team with a lot of character and the things that push you through in the playoffs. We like our mix."
Asked if he was concerned about replacing Alexander Semin's offensive production, McPhee was succinct.
"Well, it's 21 goals, and somebody [in the lineup] should be able to step up and do that."
Asked about the lockout, McPhee indicated his team was ready to go - CBA willing.
"It's business as usual for us," he said. "We're ready to go, looking forward to starting. Unless someone tells us differently, we're ready to go."
Asked about being The Hockey News pick to reclaim the Southeast Division title, McPhee stated the team's goal for the new season.
"Everybody has pressure. We have pressure to play well. What we're going to try to do is try to put a real good team on the ice and see where that takes us."