The hiring of George McPhee as the general manager of Las Vegas’s NHL expansion team is drawing universal praise around the league.
McPhee, who was introduced to the media on Wednesday, can draw on 17 years of management experience with the Washington Capitals, a run that featured a ground-up rebuild along with seven division titles and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
But it's not his successes with the Caps that make him an intriguing choice to build a competitive team in the Nevada desert, it's his legacy of failure.
McPhee's tenure in Washington was dotted with missteps, miscalculations and more than a few spectacular blunders. But having gone through those situations, he's ideally suited to create a strong team and an even stronger supporting staff.
Here are three key lessons he learned the hard way:
Hire an experienced head coach: McPhee turned the Caps over to five first-time NHL head coaches during his tenure. None was able to lead the team to postseason success. His back-to-back choices of Dale Hunter in November, 2011 and Adam Oates in June, 2012 were particularly disastrous. Hunter spitefully diminished Alex Ovechkin's impact and elevated the contributions of the team's role players. He quit after half a season. Oates took over, reviving Ovechkin and the go-go offense but at the expense of defensive zone coverage. Neither got the best out of the talent that was on hand.
That's ultimately on McPhee. There's nothing wrong with entrusting a team to a young coach. But it has to be the right young coach ... and the right situation. He badly misread the situation both times, and those miscalculations led directly to his own dismissal.
The team he'll build in Vegas will include a mix of veterans and young, developing talent. As a group, they'll need to play a solid, structured game to succeed. It'll take an experienced coach to get the get the buy-in required to make that work. The right choice doesn't have to be a Cup winner, but he must have an NHL track record of team building and the ability to impart a clear strategic vision. If McPhee can find that guy, he puts himself in a better position than he was in with the Caps.
Put the team above individuals: Loyalty is an admirable trait, but it can't take precedence over the best interests of the team. McPhee allowed that to happen too many times in Washington, especially toward the end of his tenure when he retained marginal players with overly generous deals that left him pinned under the salary cap. Players like Alexander Semin, Mike Green and John Erskine were kept on long after their usefulness had diminished simply because they were either drafted or developed under McPhee's watch. The team suffered as a result.
That's a trap he can't afford to fall into in Vegas. It shouldn't be as much of a problem there during the first few years, if only because he won't be as attached to players who were acquired in the expansion draft. But he needs to keep a clear vision of the future in mind at all times. And as soon as a player doesn't fit, or doesn't fit at the right price, he needs to go.
Be the shark, not the bait: There was a time when McPhee was one of the shrewdest peddlers in the league. Think back to 2004, when he sent Robert Lang to Detroit for Tomas Fleischmann and a late first rounder that he used to select Mike Green, just after dishing Peter Bondra to Ottawa for Brooks Laich and a second rounder. Or 2008, when he flipped spare defender Steve Eminger and a third for another deep first rounder that became John Carlson.
But that knack for selling depreciating assets for picks and prospects didn't translate into veteran acquisitions. In fact, as the Capitals became more successful and expectations grew, McPhee made a habit out of coming out on the wrong end of his deals.
Take the 2012 Mike Ribeiro trade. It's not that he gave up Cody Eakin—that's the price a team has to pay when it's trying to get over the top. It's that he gambled on a player who'd been going through the motions for years in Dallas. Ribeiro put up points, at least on the power play, but did little to improve the Caps.
McPhee still offered Ribeiro a contract extension at the trade deadline that year, doubling down on his mistake. Fortunately for the Caps, Ribeiro wouldn't sign. But that led McPhee, who wanted some top-six insurance, to trade Filip Forsberg to the Predators in exchange for Martin Erat.
That trade will be remembered as the most painful in franchise history, but again, it wasn't moving the prospect that was the problem. It was that McPhee was willing to place his faith in another chronic underperformer.
"The best trades I made were the ones where I knew the players," he said Wednesday. "The worst were the ones where I didn't."
McPhee said he has spent his time since leaving Washington watching the league and getting to know the players better. He expects to build on that next season. "I'll be out every night watching games," he said.
He made his share of mistakes. Now McPhee will have a chance to prove he learned from them.
UPDATE: At the press conference announcing McPhee's hiring, owner Bill Foley provided a few intriguing updates on the team's progress. Among them:
He's hoping to arrive at a team name soon. "I've got my GM, I've gotta get my team name. That's the next step," he said.
The process though has been challenging. "We're really having a problem with [existing] trademarks and trade names," Foley said. "It's complicated. We're working our way through the process.
"It should be unique to Las Vegas. It needs to be a name that people hear and say, 'These guys are tough, they're going to win, they're dedicated."
Foley said the league made it clear that the name should not be associated with gambling in any way.
It's long be believed that Foley's preference is Black Knights, inspired by the nickname of West Point athletics. However, trademark issues could lead to it being shortened to Knights.
Foley also revealed that the league had granted the club an exceptionally large television territory that will extend beyond Nevada to include Utah, Montana and Idaho along with parts of California and Northwest Arizona. That area encompasses several cities that could serve as a home to an American Hockey League affiliate, with Salt Lake City being an obvious choice. It also gives the team a chance to build a larger fan base and possibly partner with other entities on a regional sports network.