George McPhee deserves my trust.
I know this, and believe me when I tell you I've been repeating this sentiment over and over since free agency began. But damn, it's still tough to question the silence coming out of the Washington Capitals these days.
It's true that, when it comes to decision makers in the D.C. sports scene, McPhee really is the cream of the crop. His work as the Caps' general manager during "The Plan," namely blowing up an aging/underachieving roster and rebuilding the franchise with a solid (and much younger) foundation, is enough to earn him a lifetime achievement award.
For those who aren’t familiar, "The Plan" is code word for McPhee willingly discarding any player he had with name recognition. He traded away established veterans like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar to stockpile draft picks and youngsters as a way to reboot the franchise.
He could have taken the easy way out and sat on his hands while the Caps were good enough to make the playoffs but never truly compete for the Stanley Cup. Thankfully, that's not his style. Simply achieving mediocrity wasn’t acceptable. McPhee knew what needed to be done and then had the courage to execute, even if it ultimately could have cost him his job.
Think about this: Had McPhee wavered and/or convinced management to ride with the old timers a minute longer, then chances are that superstar forward Alex Ovechkin would have ended up in Pittsburgh. I don't know how that goes over with you, but the thought alone makes me queasy.
And while Redskins fans have to live in a world where multiple draft picks are discarded for bums like T.J. Duckett and Brandon Lloyd, McPhee is the exact opposite. He ships away nobodies like Brian Sutherby and somehow steals a second rounder, which he then turned into goalie Cristobal Huet. Is any other team in town savvy enough to turn a seldom-used fourth liner into a starting goalie? Not a chance.
But let’s pause for a quick tangent. While McPhee deserves all of the praise he gets, the rest of the local general managers sure have made it easy for him to shine.
- Vinny Cerrato was so inept that he somehow managed to run a once-proud franchise into the ground while simultaneously making legendary Redskins like Art Monk, Gary Clark and countless others feel unwelcomed. He’s a double threat in every sense possible and it may be year before the Redskins fully recover from his time calling the shots.
- Jim Bowden, who once compared the baseball player’s union to terrorists, was always surrounded by controversy during his time with the Nationals. Between his DUI arrest, an FBI investigation for skimming money from signing bonuses and everything else, Bowden proved he was good at running his mouth, not the Nats.
- Thankfully, Ernie Grunfeld hasn’t been nearly as toxic as either of those two clowns, but that doesn’t mean things have been perfect during his time with the Wizards. Since 2003, Grunfeld has wasted first rounders on so-so players (Nick Young and Oleksiy Pecherov), traded away first rounders for role players (Randy Foye and Mike Miller) and signed a one-legged, me-first point guard to a crippling six-year, $111 million contract. Oh, and he doesn’t really seem to understand the concept of salary cap space. Other than that, he’s been great.
So yeah, while McPhee has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to building a winner, he's also aided by the failures of his peers.
These days, the Capitals are truly among the NHL's elite. Led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and a stable of young, high-end talent, Washington is in position to win for the foreseeable future. Last season, the team set countless records while cruising through the best regular season in franchise history and the Caps entered the playoffs for the first time ever as the team to beat.
Unfortunately, Montreal did just that.
The Caps might have reached new heights during the regular season, but they couldn't win four out of seven against the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Just when it looked like the Capitals were finally going to give the nation's capital a much-needed reason to celebrate, their season was suddenly over in stomach-punch fashion.
Once a little time passed and local fans were able to talk about the Capitals without bursting into tears, it was time to figure out what went wrong and how to ensure it never happened again.
Let's be honest, regular-season accolades are great, but they're ultimately meaningless if you can't win in the postseason. No one baptizes their babies in the Presidents' Trophy. It's Stanley Cup or bust.
Objectively, it appears the Caps need a second-line center and some depth on defense. A well-respected veteran or two who plays with grit and isn't afraid to fight for pucks in the corner or in front of the opposing net wouldn't hurt either, but that’s about it. No one is suggesting the team needs to be overhauled. Think more along the lines of rounding out the roster with three or four key additions.
And yet, the only move McPhee has made was acquiring a minor league goalie you've never heard of. This is why I'm trying really hard not to panic.
"It's going as expected for us," McPhee told the Washington Post. "We got 121 points last year because we're a pretty good team and we don't really need a lot. As we expected, the guys that are out there really aren't better than what we have, and their prices are inflated."
I understand McPhee's stance. If other teams are foolish enough to overpay for mediocre talent, then let them. No sense getting into a bidding war for someone who you don't feel represents an upgrade to what you've already got in place. I get that. But George, please, I'm begging you, come out and admit to Caps fans that everything isn't perfect.
Tell Caps fans that there's still lots of time between now and next season and if you can't get what you're looking for in free agency, there's always a trade or two to be made. Tell us you've got compromising photos of a player or two and you're convinced you'll fill the team's needs without breaking the bank. Tell us something. Anything.
The fan base is already stoked at the thought of highly-skilled guys like John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Michal Neuvirth joining the team full time. These guys have paid their dues in the minors and are clearly ready to 'rock the red' full time. But unless changes are made, guys like John Erskine, Tyler Sloan and Tomas Fleischmann are still going to be asked to fill roles there's little reason to believe they can handle.
Fleischmann is a serviceable option as a third-line wing, but he's not the second-line center the team is sorely lacking. Sloan is extremely likable and is willing to do anything Bruce Boudreau and the coaching staff asks him, but he's never going to evoke fear in an opponent. And Erskine? Um ... he tries hard. I'll give him that.
At the end of the day, my point is simply this: A few years ago McPhee knew what needed to be done and had the courage to make it happen. He wasn’t concerned with anything other than putting his franchise in the best position possible to succeed – job security be damned.
Now, the Caps are in much better shape. Most of the heavy lifting has already been done. As long as Ovechkin and friends are healthy, these Caps have a legitimate chance year in and year out. But don’t get overconfident. While they only have a few minor areas in need of upgrades, there’s still work to be done.
McPhee was willing to do what was necessary during the 2003-04 season to get the Capitals to this point. My hope is that now he’s willing and able to make the last few moves to necessary to give the Caps the best chance possible to finally bring home a championship. Anything less would be a disservice to the fans and "The Plan."