For the first time in 17 years, the Washington Capitals will have off-season vacancies in the general manager’s chair and behind the bench. The Capitals announced on Saturday that they will not renew the contract of vice president and general manager George McPhee when it expires on June 30 and they will also relieve head coach Adam Oates of his duties. Oates had one year remaining on his contract.
The moves come 13 days after the conclusion of the team’s most disappointing regular season performance in a decade, a campaign that resulted in Washington being outside the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoff picture for the first time in seven springs.
McPhee has been on the job since June 9, 1997 when he was named to replace David Poile. (The hiring of head coach Ron Wilson was announced that same day.) The Caps announced that Poile’s contract would not be renewed on May 12, 1997, some 29 days after Washington 14-year string of playoff appearances came to an end.
When he left his post in 1997, Poile was the third most senior general manager in the league in terms of continuous tenure with the same club, exceeded only by Glen Sather (then of Edmonton) and Harry Sinden of Boston. McPhee also departs the chair with only two of his peers having been in place longer: Carolina’s Jim Rutherford and New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello.
During McPhee’s 17 years on the job, the other 29 teams in the NHL have employed a combined total of 100 general managers.
McPhee’s Capitals teams made the playoffs 10 times, won seven division titles and claimed a Presidents’ Trophy in 16 seasons under his direction. In his first season on the job, the Caps made the only Stanley Cup final appearance in their four-decade history, bowing to Detroit in four straight games.
Eleven years went by before Washington was able to earn its next playoff series win, and that came only after McPhee systematically broke apart most of the last lingering remnants of the Poile era during a dreadful 2003-04 season.
With a stroke of good fortune – a draft lottery victory helped bring Alex Ovechkin to the District with the first overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft – and a series of swift and shrewd trades that brought back a bounty of picks and young talent, McPhee started the rebuild before the lockout that gassed the entire 2004-05 season.
By 2007-08, the Caps were back in the playoffs after an absence of only three seasons. That marked the first of six straight postseason appearances, but the Capitals were never quite able to get past the hump of the first or second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Bruce Boudreau piloted the team through the first four of those forays into the postseason, reaching the second round twice.
Former Caps captain Dale Hunter replaced Boudreau behind the bench early in the 2011-12 season, and Hunter helped direct the Capitals into the second round before suffering a heartbreaking loss at the hands of the New York Rangers in seven games. Hunter resigned at season’s end, paving the way for Adam Oates, himself a former Caps captain, to take over in 2012-13.
Oates won exactly half of the 130 games in which he served as Washington’s head coach, going 65-48-17 in two seasons behind the bench. He restored the luster to Ovechkin’s offensive game, built the league’s best power play unit – one that has been copied by many teams around the league – and managed to coax some strong seasons out of several players in each of his seasons on the job.
But despite several players enjoying personal best seasons, Oates’ 2013-14 Caps were an uneven and consistently inconsistent bunch as a whole. Washington missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in seven years, and that was enough to end Oates’ tenure as the 16th head coach in the franchise’s history.
On what had to be one of the all-time red-letter days, Oates was named Washington’s coach on June 26, 2012, the same day in which he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But because of the lockout that killed nearly half of the 2012-13 season, Oates didn’t make his debut behind the Washington bench until the Caps’ season opener at Tampa Bay on Jan. 19, 2013.
Oates and his staff helped coach the AHL Hershey Bears from the start of the 2013-14 training camp until just before Thanksgiving. Just under two months later, Oates and company finally started off the season in Tampa, where Oates had started his coaching career as an assistant with the Lightning in 2009-10. But instead of the usual three-week training camp replete with preseason contests, Oates and the Caps were forced to get acquainted and get up and running with the coach’s system with less than a week of training camp and no preseason games against NHL opposition.
A predictable slow start (2-8-1) preceded a strong late push and the Capitals finished the season on a 15-2-2 spree. Washington won the first two games of its first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Rangers, but again couldn’t close the deal. The Blueshirts rebounded and prevailed in seven games.
Given the Capitals’ string finishing kick in 2012-13, the team was expected to make the playoffs again in 2013-14. Even with a roster that was somewhat short on blueline experience, those expectations were not unreasonable. The Caps finished with 90 points but they left at least 10 points (conservatively figuring) on the table because of an inability to hold late leads and a perplexing tendency to allow goals against soon after scoring them.
Both of those issues first cropped up on opening night in Chicago on Oct. 1 and both were still occurring all too regularly into the latter days of the season.
Washington’s season truly came undone in December when the team opted to go with an ill-advised three-goalie rotation (Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth) rather than go with the two (Holtby and Neuvirth) that it had expressed confidence in at season’s start. At one point during the middle of the season, the Caps won four of 18 games (4-9-5), with the lion’s share of those games coming while the club was unsuccessfully trying to navigate NHL waters with three healthy netminders on its roster.
Washington won only three of its last 15 (3-10-2) divisional games in 2013-14 and it was shutout on home ice six times, the most since suffering nine home whitewashes in the team’s inaugural campaign of 1974-75. The Capitals won only 28 games in regulation or overtime last season; only four clubs (Edmonton, the New York Islanders, Florida and Buffalo) had fewer such triumphs.
It’s somewhat ironic that McPhee and Oates’ fates were determined at the same time. Oates’ arrival in the District as a player came just three months before McPhee was hired. One of the new GM’s first orders of business was to deal with a sticky and contentious contract renegotiation request during the summer of 1997. Oates’ agent promised that his client would not play in Washington unless his existing contract was torn up and renegotiated.
Sixteen years ago today was a much happier one for both men. Despite being outshot 54-27, the Caps earned a 3-2 double-overtime victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the two teams. Oates earned the primary assist on Joé Juneau’s game-winner at 6:31 of the second extra session of hockey.
That April 26, 1998 victory gave the Caps a 2-1 series lead. They eventually prevailed and went on to oust Ottawa and Buffalo before falling to the Wings in what was – in terms of playoff success – the high-water mark of the McPhee era and franchise history.
McPhee and his hockey operations staff have had much more success at the draft table over the last half of his tenure, and the team as currently constructed is mostly a homegrown bunch. Heading into 2014-15, the Caps have at least as much talent in the cupboard as McPhee inherited in 1997. With the organization now clearly at a crossroads, the upcoming hires of McPhee and Oates’ replacements are crucial ones, certain to determine the Capitals’ path well beyond next season.