If you had to put a list together of all the possible scapegoats for the Washington Capitals' playoff failures recently, general manager George McPhee would probably be the last guy on it. The Capitals' problem has not been roster construction, which is McPhee's domain. On paper, this team has been good enough to win the Stanley Cup the last two years (at least), and the players and coaches just haven't gotten it done.
But that doesn't mean McPhee will rest on his laurels and run his team the way he has always run his team. More than anything, that was the message I got from the Capitals' surprisingly-active first few days of NHL free agency. The obvious conclusion people have made to the team's moves to sign Tomas Vokoun, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern, trade for Troy Brouwer and deal away Semyon Varlamov for a king's ransom is that the Capitals believe the problem with the team is roster construction, not coaching. That's certainly true. But to look at it another way, it shows McPhee himself has changed his philosophy a bit.
It's not that McPhee has been inactive in recent years. He's just been more active in the winter instead of the summer. Over the past three years, McPhee has decided to reshape his roster at the trade deadline. In 2008, he acquired Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke and Cristobal Huet to fuel a playoff run. In 2010, he picked up Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo and Scott Walker to provide supplementary scoring and defense. Last year, in his most successful trade deadline yet, he stole Jason Arnott from the Devils, got Dennis Wideman from Florida and claimed Marco Sturm off waivers. The Capitals took off immediately after those moves and surged to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Ultimately, though, all three of those seasons ended in playoff failure. To suggest McPhee's trade-deadline moves were also failures is massively unfair, but you have to wonder how differently those seasons would have turned out if those moves came earlier. Arnott was credited by many with turning around the Capitals' culture last year, but imagine if he had a full season to do his work. Would the Capitals have reverted back to bad habits against Tampa Bay if Arnott was there from Day 1? Would Mike Green's injury issues have been as crippling if Wideman and Scott Hannan were on the roster in October?
These are tricky questions. Judging from McPhee's free-agency moves, he believes the answer to both is "no." Time will tell if McPhee was right to target Ward, Hamrlik and Halpern on Day 1 of free agency. We will also eventually have to wait and see whether the upside of grabbing Vokoun for a bargain price is as good in practice as it is in theory. We'll also have to see if the next move, which will almost surely involve shipping somebody out to cut enough salary to re-sign Brouwer and Karl Alzner, is the right one.
Bigger-picture, though, McPhee changed gears. Instead of waiting for the trade deadline, McPhee decided to change his team's roster composition at the first chance he got. Make no mistake about it: signing Ward, Hamrlik, Halpern and Vokoun, trading Varlamov and making whatever necessary cap-cutting move that comes next represents a roster shakeup. McPhee is banking on the idea that the newcomers will be more effective with a full season to integrate themselves into their new surroundings. He's hoping that, with more time to get comfortable, the newcomers can make the necessary tweaks to turn a successful regular-season team into a successful playoff team.
It's not how McPhee has done business in the last few years. But McPhee has also been around a long time and has pursued many different strategies to help his team. After a second straight playoff failure, McPhee held himself accountable and decided to try something different. Here's hoping his team is next to follow that advice.