Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Not on the 'Fire McPhee' Bandwagon

The Capitals are struggling mightily and their fans are (reasonably) upset and calling for either Glen Hanlon or George McPhee (or both) to be ousted. As I've mentioned before, I think it would be appropriate to fire Hanlon. It pains me to say so because I respect what he's done for the organization over the last couple years, but it's becoming increasingly clear that he is not the right coach for this team right now.

But I don't think McPhee deserves the boot.

If you're consider a coaching or management change you have to go beyond the knee-jerk reactions I think many people may be having, which take two forms: (1) "Well the team is struggling, it must be the [coach, GM, owner]'s fault, get rid of them!" or (2) "The team is struggling and I'm pissed off and I want blood, damn it!" Each reaction is understandable and to an extent warranted, but if you're going to make a change I think you have to go beyond these reactions and consider the situation more carefully. That's what I did with Hanlon and that's what I did with McPhee that led me to this conclusion.

What I'm going to do to make my case is lay what I think were crucial periods for the Capitals and how McPhee responded to them.

I. Initial Success
II. Two Bad Decisions
III. The Fire Sale
IV. The Rebuild and the Draft
V. Trades
VI. Summer of 2007

I. Initial Success

The Capitals started well under McPhee, who took the helm at the start of the 1997-98 season, which ended in a Stanly Cup Finals loss to Detroit. Critics here say that this wasn't McPhee's team; it was David Poile's and I think that is a fair assessment. Following a Stanly Cup run hangover in 1998-99, the team won its division in both the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.

II. Two Bad Decisions

I think most Capitals fan would agree that the reasons this team crashed and burned were twofold. One was the signing of Jaormir Jagr to that ridiculous contract for $77 million over 7 years. The other was the hiring of Bruce Cassidy as the head coach. Either of these would be enough to put a GM on the hot seat and both should be automatic grounds for dismissal. So why does McPhee still have his job and why do I think he deserves it?. Simple. The overwhelming impression given to Caps fans was that each was move was a brainchild of owner Ted Leonsis.

It's generally accepted Leonsis wanted to ink Jagr to huge extension as an effort to make a splash and garner more support for the team. If I remember correctly Leonsis boasted after the signing that Jagr would retire as a Capital and we heard a lot about the season ticket base expanding. As for Cassidy, his hiring was directly inspired by the job Paul Maurice had done with Hurricanes, taking them on a run to the Cup finals in 2001. Cassidy was supposed to be a coach in the Maurice mold - young, hip, play-friendly and decidedly different from defense-oriented taskmaster Ron Wilson.

Of course the Jagr contract became an albatross (even more so with the labor uncertainty surrounding the NHL in the next couple years), even while enshrined Jagr as the franchise cornerstone and hence lead to other bad signings (most notably Robert Lang). Meanwhile Bruce Cassidy turned out to be a world-class S.O.B.

After these failures McPhee was instructed by Leonsis to tear down and rebuild, resulting in....

III. The Fire Sale

Capitals fans remember the names that were shipped out well: Jagr, Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Michael Nylander. Fire sales are tricky, especially this variety. McPhee was ordered to tear down the team mid-season (giving him less time to search for buyers) and had to do it amidst labor unrest, as the CBA was soon to expire (making it hard to deal vets with big contract like Lang and Jagr). Given that, I think he did well, amassing the following: Jared Aulin, Kris Beech, Shaone Morrisonn, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, three first round picks, three second round picks and a fourth round pick.

What else is there to say? It is what it is and all things considered I think McPhee did a good job.

IV. The Rebuild and the Draft

Caps draft history available here.

I decided to combine these sections because they are, in large part, on and the same. Let me preface this by saying that how much of draft success and failure is because of skill on the GM's part and how much is because of skill on the scouts' part is up for debate and can vary widely. That said, I think McPhee has done fine, picking players like Fehr, Eminger, Semin, Schultz, Green, Backstrom, Varlamov, Bouchard, Neuvirth and Bourque (and Ovechkin, but he doesn't count because, c'mon, that was a slam dunk). Not all of those guys are going to be great NHL players or even have sustained NHL careers. But looking at this it's hard to say that the Capitals haven't been getting useful players from the draft, or to say they haven't built up depth amongst their prospects. And yes they're all first and second round picks. But the reality is that it's very rare to get a productive NHL-caliber player past those first two rounds, especially these days. When it happens it's just as much luck as anything else.

There's always one argument I hate and it goes something like "[General Manager's Name] is horrible! Look at [draft year], he drafted [Player A] when he could have had [Player B]". In some instances this is fair. For example I think saying "McPhee should have picked Ryan Getzlaf over Eric Fehr" is reasonable, even though Fehr's effectiveness has been limited by his compressed nerve. When it bugs me is when people say something like: "We passed on Pavel Datsyuk in 1998! How could we do that?" because every team passed on Datsyuk. Several times. Credit where credit is due - the Red Wings made a great pick when the drafted Datsyuk. But it's not like any of the other 27 teams knew how good Datsyuk was going to be in 1998, so it isn't fair to vilify any one GM for passing on him. The fact is that with almost every pick in every draft you can look at it and find guys who "should" have been picked instead, that's the way it goes for any general manager.

To demonstrate this I've done the following: I decided to chose a high, but not top-10 draft spot and look at who was, and who should have been, picked there. I chose the 20th overall pick, when most of the top prospects were off the board but still early on that there theoretically shouldn't be that much luck to it. The drafts I chose to look at were 1997-2001, as these are the ones I think most people will have familiarity with that can be looked at using the conventional rule-of-thumb to wait at least five seasons before evaluating a draft class.

1997: Mike Brown (Florida). Picked ahead of: Scott Hannan (23), Brendan Morrow (25), Ben Clymer (27), Kristian Huselius (45), Henrik Tallinder (48), Maxim Afinogenov (69), Mike York (136), Brian Campbell (156), Ladislav Nagy (177)

1998: Scott Parker (Colorado). Potential better picks: Simon Gagne (22), Scott Gomez (27), Jonathon Cheechoo (29), Mike Fischer (44), Mike Ribeiro (45), Brad Richards (64), Erik Cole (71), Brian Gionta (82), Shawn Horcoff (99), Pavel Datsyuk (141), Michael Ryder (216).

1999: Barrett Heisten (Buffalo). Better picks: Nick Boynton (21), Martin Havlat (26), Mike Commodore (41), Jordan Leopold (44), Adam Hall (52), Niklas Hagman (70), Niclas Havelid (83), Mike Comrie (91), Martin Erat (191), Henrik Zetterberg (210).

2000: Alexander Frolov (Los Angeles). I picked a number (20th overall) at random and went with it. Honestly I think Frolov was the best player available at this point in the draft.

2001: Marcel Goc (San Jose). Potential better picks: Derek Roy (32), Fedor Tyutin (40), Mike Cammalleri (49), Jason Pominville (55), Tomas Plekanec (71), Jussi Jokinen (192).

So what's my point? Everyone misses players, everyone makes picks that don't work out. That is the nature of the draft

Go back to 1998, McPhee's first draft after having been with the team for a year and look at his first and second round picks. Some have failed (Jomar Cruz, anyone?) but for the most part if you take out the guys who either look like good prospects, have proven themselves to be quality players or who have had unforeseen injury issues, how many busts are there? Not a lot. And that's really all you can ask a GM to do in the draft after the first ten picks or so - pick up quality players and not waste your picks.

Of course, I don't think the draft is a great indicator of skill for a GM. As an aside, who knows who the Caps would have drafted if they'd had a top 4 pick in 2005 like they should have had (they tied for fewest points in 2003-04). The top four picks in the draft that year were Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson and Benoit Pouliot. Gilbert Brule, Marc Staal and Anze Kopitar would have been available. Instead the Caps wound up with the 14th pick and Sasha Pokulok. Nothing against Pokulok, but the I'd rather have one of those other guys. Like the Caps should have had. You know, teams could only move 3 spots in the regular lottery, why not have the same rule for the post-lockout weighted lottery?

V. Trades

Okay, not a time period but an important part of the GM's job nonetheless.

I really like what McPhee has done in the trade market. As bad as the Jagr extension was I still maintain the trade for him was not a bad move, given that the Capitals picked him up for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk. The best offensive player in the league at that point for three guys who never amounted to anything in the NHL. That's a good trade.

  • Adam Oates to the Flyers for 14 games in return for Maxime Ouellet and one pick in each of the first three rounds in the draft - good trade, even though Ouellet never amounted to anything.
  • Chris Clark was acquired for, I believe, either a third or fourth round pick. Also a good trade.
  • Milan Jurcina for a fourth round pick. A good trade unless the Bruins get real lucky with that pick.
  • Brian Sutherby for a second round pick is a good trade. I like Suts but he wasn't going to play here.
VI. Summer of 2007

I bring this up to make one last point: going in the offseason the Capitals needed to fill three holes: a center who could play on the top two lines, a defenseman who could skate a lot of minutes and another top six forward, preferably a right wing. He filled all those holes quite well with Nylander, Poti and Kozlov, especially given the money available and the general low desirability of Washington for free agents.

My goal is not to exclude McPhee from criticism. Steve Konowalchuk shipping off for Jonas Johansson and Bates Battaglia wasn't a great move. Failing to sign Nick Boynton was a huge mistake (although it was almost ten years ago). I know that; McPhee probably knows it as well. But any GM is going to make mistakes.

So in closing then I guess I'd just have to say, where has McPhee gone so horribly wrong that he deserves to lose his job? After the Jagr/Cassidy fiasco Leonsis told McPhee to tear everything down and start over, which he did. He hasn't made horrible picks or horrible trades and hasn't signed any free agents that are going to be albatrosses for this organization. There's really nothing you can point at and say it was a mistake and that someone else could have been reasonably expected to do it better.

The Bottom Line: McPhee's had to try and rebuild this organization from scratch and the reality is that takes longer than three years. To expect anything else is to be unrealistic, thus it doesn't make sense to look at the Capitals current problems and automatically decide it's time to fire the GM. To me, once you look deeper, there's nothing to point at to show McPhee needs to go.

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