When the Washington Capitals formally introduced George McPhee as general manager on June 10, 1997, he shared his on-ice philosophy with three media members in the middle of a Chinatown construction site.
"You can get to the playoffs with a grinding team and you might win a round, but you have to have speed and skill and balance to win the Stanley Cup," McPhee said. "You can teach good players to play well defensively, but you can't teach defensive players to score."
Nearly 17 years later, McPhee, now a former Capitals general manager after being informed Saturday that his contract would not be renewed, echoed that same sentiment.
“What sells tickets is entertaining hockey and we’ve always tried to play that way. We play an exciting brand of hockey. Because I don’t think hockey should ever be boring,” McPhee said. “I think we can keep playing that style. What you just have to be mindful of is you have to look after the goal, after your own end. And we didn’t do that quite good enough this year, but that’s the way you win.
"You want teams that are fun to watch. And we were. You can’t teach people to score. You can teach them to defend and just a little bit more emphasis on protecting your end of the ice. It’s going to be a real good team.”
As has been well documented, the offensive-juggernaut Capitals likely overreacted to their 2010 first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens with former coach Bruce Boudreau transforming his team into a more defensively responsible unit at the behest of the front office.
As McPhee was quick to point out, the Capitals adjusted accordingly; they scored 94 fewer goals in 2010-11, but finished fourth in the league in goals allowed and still clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference.
“He pulled it off,” McPhee said of Boudreau. “He played two different ways and continued to win. He’s an outstanding coach and a good guy.”
Dale Hunter succeeded Boudreau following the latter's dismissal in November 2011. While Hunter's conservative, defense-oriented approach led the Capitals to within one win of their first conference final appearance since 1998, it was never going to be a long-term solution.
Enter Adam Oates, who was expected to bring some sort of balance, but ultimately left Washington without an identity for two seasons before being fired Saturday.
McPhee, however, insisted that the frequent turnover in coaches and styles of play did not play a pivotal role in the Capitals' recent demise.
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to be negative here," McPhee said. "We missed the playoffs by three points for the first time in seven years. We’re doing something really well. Systems don’t matter a whole lot. That should be 10-15 percent of what you’re doing. That’s your foundation. It’s about coaching and making it work and our coaches have been making it work.”
While McPhee offered how he thought the Capitals should proceed in order to compete for the Stanley Cup, he stopped short of making any specific recommendations.
"It's really not for me to decide anymore," he said. "That's for the next guy."
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