This afternoon, Caps general manager George McPhee conducted a press conference for about 30 minutes. Just before McPhee spoke with the media, I conducted my own one-on-one exclusive interview with GMGM, a pre-trade deadline ritual we've maintained for more than a decade. Here’s a transcription of that conversation.
You’ve been through the routine of an NHL season 16 or 17 times. Would you say this year has been any more difficult than other years as far as making deals? It seems like because of the dollars that came out of the market in the wake of the lockout and the salary cap reduction – the $180 million that came out of it – it seems like a lot of teams and GMs are up against the cap and seem to be a little bit hamstrung as far as making moves that might improve their teams this season. And it seems that the players that have changed uniforms thus far this season have been a more pedestrian lot than most seasons.
“It has been the most difficult year from that standpoint. There were things that we would have liked to have done last summer that we thought could have improved the club that we weren’t able to do based on what happened in the marketplace, and it affected all clubs. And there were things this season that we would have liked to have done, and were basically precluded from doing because there was no liquidity in the market. People just couldn’t make trades. So from that standpoint, it’s been a difficult year because there are times when you’re watching your club and they’re not playing the way that they’re capable of playing, and there are things you’d like to do to make them better and you can’t.”
Are you hopeful that if the salary cap goes up to the degree that most of us seem to expect that it will this summer, that those types of logjams will be alleviated going forward?
“Yes, and it’s not necessarily that we have to spend more, but we would like more flexibility in the marketplace.”
About half of the teams in the league are bumping up pretty close to the cap right now. And you’ve only got about five teams that could be legitimately seen as ‘out of it’ as far as the standings go at this stage of the season. Does that lead you to believe that it could be quieter this year than most at the deadline?
“That’s hard to say. Quieter in terms of the number of trades and the number of transactions? Possibly. But it doesn’t mean that the managers won’t be on the phones as much as they’ve ever been, trying to find opportunities or solutions.”
You mention those opportunities and solutions; there are ways [to get deals done]. But it’s going to take creativity.
“You’re right, there are ways.”
If you’re going to take on a big money guy, you’re going to have to move a big money guy.
Do you sense that there is enough of a general willingness out there for those sorts of things to happen?
“Yes. There are teams that if you look at the standings, they’re not going to make the playoffs. And they’re already talking about selling cap space in one form or another.”
You’ve only got one player [center Mikhail Grabovski] who is a pending UFA and I know he is a guy you would like to keep here beyond this season. Are there other players that you’re seeking to move, besides Martin Erat?
“We’re a team that’s in good shape with our contracts. We have a lot of good players under contract, contracts that we like, reasonable contracts in the marketplace. We don’t have dead money on the books. There is nothing we’re trying to get out of. We’re in good shape, now and moving forward. But if there are opportunities to make the club better, then we always try to do that and do whatever it takes to do that.”
Hershey has had some good success here the last six or eight weeks. Has there been anyone in particular who has opened your eyes?
“Yes, there have been several players. I’m always reluctant to name them because you don’t want to leave someone out. But they’ve been terrific. They’re 17-4-1 in their last 22 games. Some really good young players have come a long way this year and we’ve got the right mix of veterans helping them out, adding some savvy and some grit. It’s been a real fun team to watch recently. Certainly the future is bright for the Capitals because we have six or seven players there that we like a lot that aren’t far away.”
Going down a level, how much have you seen of [2013 first-round draft choice] Andre Burakovsky this year and what are your thoughts on how he has developed since we last saw him here in September?
“We watched him a lot at the World Junior Championship and look forward to seeing him sometime in the next few weeks. But we think we made a heck of a pick and maybe one of our best picks ever. This player has everything that we’re looking for in a player. He has size, he has speed, he really shoots the puck, he wants the puck in the tough situations when the game is on the line. He is a real good two-way player and he is about as smart as they come. I don’t think we have many players like him in terms of hockey IQ. He’s a really, really bright player. He is two or three plays ahead of most players. We are thrilled with that selection. For where we got this guy, he might be one of the best players in that draft. It’s almost like [Evgeni] Kuznetsov. I would put Kuznetsov in the top five in his draft and this guy, too. I think if this draft were done over again, he’d be in the top five for sure. He’s a star.”
Is the plan then to have him dip his toes in the pro waters with Hershey sometime this spring, in a perfect world?
“If he’s available, if his junior team [Erie of the OHL] isn’t playing, then yes, that would be ideal.”
Speaking of Kuznetsov, what do you envision his ceiling being? Is be going to be a top-six forward, and is he going to play center or wing?
“We drafted him as a center. The nice thing about drafting centers is that if it doesn’t work out, you can play them on the wing. We see him with top-six forward capabilities, and we’ll look forward to the day that he gets here so that we can find out.”
Assuming that day could be within the next month or so, what can we expect from him coming here in mid-season?
“We really don’t know what to expect. And until he is no longer playing in the KHL, there is not much to comment on. We like him a lot, we’re happy we drafted him, we hope that we see him in the NHL one day. But until that day comes, there is not much to say. Don’t count on him being here, and if he does come then we’ll see what we have. But we’re proceeding as if he’s not going to be here. If he shows up, it’s gravy.”
It’s kind of surprising that you’ve still got a guy – in Martin Erat – who asked for a deal a couple of months ago, but I guess it goes back to earlier in the conversation when we talked about how hard it is to make a deal this season.
“It goes back to your other point, which is that it’s been a difficult year to do things. When a player comes in and says that he would like the opportunity to play somewhere else, then you try to accommodate him. But it’s been a difficult year to do that sort of thing. He is a good player. Sometimes players work their way out of that position; they work their way out of wanting to leave. Sometimes they play and things start going better for them, and then they don’t want to leave. We’ve had those situations before. So if you have a player who can help your club, then you keep trying to make things work. But at the end of the day, if he wants out then we will try to accommodate him. Maybe that will be something that presents itself at the deadline. We’ll see.”
Did the injury to Brooks Laich that left him out of the lineup for a month or so make it more difficult to part with Erat simply for reasons of depth?
“No, not necessarily. If a trade was there we would have done it and we would have given the opportunity to someone in the American League. But it hasn’t materialized because there aren’t enough teams that can participate right now.”
Has he helped himself marketability-wise recently?
“He has played much better. And as we learned from our friends in Nashville, as the season progresses he gets better. He’s a slow starter and by the end of the season, you’re playing him a lot. And he has played much better.”
As far as the return of the five Olympians, what are you expecting?
“We don’t know what to expect when players come back from the Olympics. You try to give them a couple of days off, and then you throw them into practice and get them ready to play. You will have different reactions from different players; some of them are really disappointed that they didn’t win and some of them hopefully will be delighted that they won. These things are hard to prepare for, because you don’t know what you’re getting. But hopefully a couple of days rest will help and then we throw them in and they’re even better than they were before the Olympics.”
With Ovi and the situation with his dad, is there a timetable or are you just playing it by ear?
“Ovi has had a setback in his personal life. His father has had heart surgery following the game against Slovakia. Ovi did not know about it until the tournament was over. His father is in the hospital in Sochi and he is in stable condition and now he is out of [intensive care]. But Alex will stay with him as long as necessary. Family always comes first. We will go day by day and we will update every couple of days.”
How do you expect Ovi to be upon returning after the Russians failed to medal at the Olympics?
“It’s obviously a kick in the stomach for him. It was a very important tournament for him. And now it’s probably the toughest period of his life to not succeed there and to have his father sick. This is going to be a tough time for him. It’s not for me to pass judgment on the players that the Russians picked for that tournament or the coaches that they pick. I wasn’t there; I’m not going to comment on it.
“I can comment about Ovi and the Washington Capitals. We play here. We play in North America. He has been a terrific NHL player. We’re delighted to have him; he is leading our league in [goal] scoring. He was playing really well before the break; we went 5-2-1 and he had 11 points. We expect when he comes back he will play just as well and help us to get this team playing the way that it can.
“He has comported himself really, really well as a representative of the Washington Capitals and the NHL and the Russian team. He did all the interviews before the tournament, during the tournament and after the tournament. He was available to everyone, he went out and played his guts out, and it didn’t work out.
“That’s the way those tournaments go. It’s single-game elimination. They’re short tournaments and the best teams don’t always win. It’s a different game of hockey. We play the NHL game here; he’s a terrific NHL player. That game over there is hard for a lot of guys who have played in the NHL for a number of years. If you look at the top 25 scorers in our league before the Olympic break, five of them have more than three points in this tournament.
“It’s a different kind of hockey. It’s not NHL hockey. I’m not saying it’s bad; it’s just different. I’m not saying Russia was the best team, because I don’t think they were. But the best teams don’t always win these tournaments. You can go into that tournament with a great team and if your goalie has a bad day or their goalie has a great day or some guy takes a five-minute major, it’s over.”
How important is it for the team to try to increase Tom Wilson’s role? He seems like he is capable of taking on more.
“He is probably capable of doing that. But it’s not necessarily necessary now because we’ve got guys ahead of him who are playing really well in Ovechkin, Brouwer, Ward and Fehr. His time will come. He is going to play in the league for 15-20 years. We like what he has done in his first year and that’s all he has to keep doing, and it helps our hockey club.”
When you look at the makeup of teams that have won the Stanley Cup over the last quarter of a century, one of the things that stands out is the amount of experience those clubs had on their blueline. The average amount of experience is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 games, and the Caps team that went to the final in 1998 had around 3,500 games worth of NHL experience. And none of the teams that did win the Cup over that span has as few games played as your defense has this season. Is that maybe the most glaring area that you’re seeking to address at the deadline?
“I like the group we have. We’ve sort of restructured our defense on the fly here. It is a younger group. Back when we went to the finals with Detroit, we were the two oldest teams in the league. It’s become a younger league, and younger guys are accomplishing a lot more. We have some really good young defensemen in [John] Carlson, [Karl] Alzner and [Mike] Green who are experienced, and [Jack] Hillen, who is a young guy who is experienced. And we have some other guys – like [Dmitry] Orlov and [Connor] Carrick – who we thought would be good players, and they are. So I don’t feel the need to necessarily address anything there. But like with any position, if there is something out there that makes us better and the asking price isn’t extortionate, then we’d explore it.”
Has this season been any more frustrating for you because of the way the team has performed – probably a bit under expectations and they haven’t put a run together – and you haven’t been able to do anything to make them better?
“This team can play better than it has. We know that and the players know that. We like the way we were playing just before the break. We were starting to play the way we were capable of playing. We were staying out of the penalty box, we were killing penalties, we were scoring 5-on-5 [goals] and we were cutting down on scoring opportunities for the other club. We won three out of four and went 5-2-1. That’s the pace that we have to play at and that’s the pace we’re capable of playing at and that’s the standard that I think the players are holding themselves to. They can play at that level and they know it, and that’s the way we’re going to have to play the rest of the way.”
Do you feel any more pressure on yourself this year than in previous years, especially at this time?
“I always feel pressure. That’s the nature of the job. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be in it. We’re here to win and we work as hard as we possibly can to put a winner on the ice every day. Nothing has changed.”