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George McPhee settling in nicely in Las Vegas

General manager feels 'really, really lucky' to have landed job with expansion team

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- George McPhee didn't know what he was getting into. Not exactly. He knew he wanted to be an NHL general manager again and there were only 30 of those jobs -- well, 31 now that Las Vegas had landed an expansion franchise that would begin play in 2017-18. Like a lot of people who have visited Las Vegas, he had never ventured beyond The Strip. He had little feel for how it all would work, how hockey would be received. Didn't matter. Opportunities are precious. This was one to seize.

McPhee interviewed with owner Bill Foley. The two clicked, and he got the job. Soon he left his family behind in Washington, where he had been GM of the Capitals for 17 years until he was fired in 2014; checked into a hotel in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin, about 20 minutes west of The Strip; and found a whole new world.

"The big surprise," McPhee told NHL.com in an interview, "has been Las Vegas. The Strip is like Times Square in New York. It's this place you go to every once in a while, and it's really fun. But then there's a lot more to New York than Times Square, and there's a lot more to Las Vegas than The Strip. There's wonderful communities here, really lovely people. Really a friendly town."

As McPhee dug into his work at a temporary office in Summerlin, it became clear this was more than an opportunity. This was a golden one. He had an owner with financial resources all-in to build a first-class franchise and win the Stanley Cup. He had a state with no income tax and a city with nice weather in hockey season and an easy commute, advantages for recruiting staff and players. He had the new 17,500-seat, $375 million T-Mobile Arena on The Strip, and he would have a new 120,000 square-foot, $25 million practice facility in Summerlin. He had a blank canvas, no problems from the past to clean up.

He had everything he needed and more.

Then McPhee attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the practice facility Wednesday. About 200 fans showed up to see some dignitaries turn dirt with shiny shovels for a photo op.

Then he went to T-Mobile Arena on Friday and Saturday. Hundreds of fans in hockey sweaters milled about Toshiba Plaza outside, listening to music both days, playing street hockey, getting autographs from former NHL players and asking Foley and McPhee questions on Saturday. Thousands watched the Los Angeles Kings play preseason games against the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche. Every goal, they roared. The place had energy.

"You realize you just got really, really lucky," McPhee said, "because you don't want any constraints. You don't want any handcuffs on the ability of your franchise to succeed. You don't want any excuses. … You look, and you see all the elements are there to be able to succeed. You don't know that for sure when you're interviewing for the job, but when you take the job and you really get a good look at it and then you realize how enthused the community is …"

McPhee paused. He repeated himself.

"You feel really, really lucky," he said.

* * * * *

A blank canvas invites ambition and imagination.

"You hope to paint a masterpiece," McPhee said.

But before you can paint your masterpiece, you have to buy the paint, and the paintbrushes, and the rest of your art supplies. You have to hire more painters to help and other workers to support everyone. You have to do some sketches.

When you aren't taking over an existing team with an existing infrastructure that means you have to build an infrastructure from scratch down to the smallest, most mundane details. You can't draft players before you fill out a hockey operations department to evaluate them, and you can't fill out a hockey operations department before you figure out everything from pensions to health-care plans to car allowances to cell phones to computers to the software on the computers. At one point, McPhee wondered who was going to draft the contract for a new employee. He said to himself: "I guess I am."

"And so that's how it started," McPhee said. "That was incredibly time-consuming. But you start adding pieces, and it starts to get some momentum, and now it's like a big bird trying to get it up off the ground. It takes a while, but once it's up and going, it's pretty powerful."

McPhee hired about 35 people in about 60 days -- or about one person every other day. He might add another person or two to hockey ops, but the department is essentially complete and running.

He has an assistant GM, Kelly McCrimmon, once owner, coach and GM of Brandon of the Western Hockey League; a director of hockey ops, Misha Donskov, once manager of hockey ops/analytics and video for Hockey Canada; a director of player personnel, Vaughn Karpan, once director of pro scouting for the Montreal Canadiens; a director of amateur scouting, Scott Luce, once director of player personnel for the Florida Panthers. He has a salary-cap expert, a stable of pro and amateur scouts, and more.

"They're not a bunch of clones," McPhee said. "We have some really talented young up-and-coming people, and we have some really grizzled veteran people that have been in the game a long, long time. And so I think the common theme is that they're smart, they're talented, they're experienced, but they have very low egos, and that's been the hiring process or the organization from Day 1. When Bill started hiring people, that's what he wanted: low-ego, hard-working, experienced people. So we've just stayed with that theme, and it's worked really well. …

"There's been a lot that's really enjoyable about this because the attitude is so positive right now. The people we've hired are either people who got promotions, which always makes people feel good, or people that were unemployed that are getting a second or third chance. They feel really good about where they are. And so we've got a group that's really upbeat and positive."

* * * * *

In little more than eight months, Las Vegas will submit its list for the expansion draft and make its first selections at the 2017 NHL Draft at United Center in Chicago. In less than a year, it will hold its first training camp, play its first preseason games, unveil its first 23-man roster and debut in its first regular-season game.

So McPhee gathered his hockey operations staff at the temporary offices in Summerlin on Saturday and Sunday for the first of what will be multiple mock expansion drafts. He declined to share details, because he doesn't want to give the current 30 teams any insight, lest they take advantage. But he had his staff members project which players each team will protect and then select players from the rest of the pool, keeping the rules and nuances in mind.

There are many rules and nuances, but these are the basics: Each of the current 30 teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or eight skaters and a goalie. First- and second-year professionals and unsigned draft choices are exempt. Las Vegas must pick one player from each team; at least 14 forwards, at least nine defensemen and at least three goaltenders; and at least 20 players under contract for 2017-18. The salary-cap charges must add up to within 60 to 100 percent of the 2016-17 cap. The current 30 teams must submit their protection lists by 5 p.m. ET on June 17; Las Vegas must submit its selections by 5 p.m. ET on June 20.

"It's a new process for all of us," McPhee said. "It's not a seven-round entry draft. It's 30 players. The rules are better for this team this year than they have been for expansion teams in the past, so we really want to maximize the return that we can get from it. It's important to go through this process early to see how we project it to work."

McPhee plans to pick the best players available within the parameters. He wants to acquire the most valuable assets he can, because he can keep the players he drafted or trade them for other assets. Expect a lot of maneuvering, and expect it to start well before the expansion draft.

"Teams are going to make adjustments," McPhee said. "All the teams are concerned about is winning right now, having a winning season. When the season's over, then all bets are off, and there's going to be a redistribution of players."

McPhee has bought a house in Summerlin, but he's still sleeping in the hotel because he hasn't gotten a bed yet and his family isn't joining him in Las Vegas until next fall. He doesn't have much time to sleep, anyway. He has to put together a medical staff, hire media relations and team services people, try to scout at least three pro games per week, and get home to see his family when he can. He hasn't even gotten to agenda items like hiring a coach yet. That will come in the spring.

But he's energized and grateful to be back in the game, especially in a situation like this. When fans asked questions before the preseason game Saturday, Foley told the story of how the Maloof family had approached him more than three years ago about putting an NHL expansion team in a new arena in Las Vegas, how he had run a season-ticket drive to gauge the viability of the market and how "the rest is history." The fans cheered. McPhee interjected.

"Can I make one point?" McPhee told the crowd. "I've been asked several times that … You know, what I've been doing is … It's a lot of work. People say, 'You must be working so hard. It must be so much work.' I said, 'You know what? The harder work's been done. Bill did the unimaginable and delivered this franchise. I mean, that was the hard work. What we're doing is fun. It's enjoyable. We're busy, but it's fun stuff. It beats working for a living. It's fun.'"

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