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George McPhee tasked with building identity in Vegas

NHL expansion franchise's first general manager wants 'attacking' team

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

It starts with identity.

When the NHL awarded an expansion franchise to Las Vegas on June 22, owner Bill Foley said that the local residents were not about the Strip and that the team would give the city "an identity it's never had." Las Vegas was no longer just an entertainment mecca. It was a major league sports town.

Now that Foley has hired George McPhee as general manager, they have to decide on the team's identity in hockey terms. To establish the NHL in a new market, they have to build a fan base. To have the best chance of building a fan base, they have to win. To win, they have to build a good team. To build a good team, they have to find the right players. To find the right players, they have to decide what type of players are right.

Consider what coach Mike Sullivan said after the Pittsburgh Penguins emphasized speed and won the Stanley Cup.

"We tried to create an identity," Sullivan said. "When we go in and play a team, their coaches have a meeting before the game. What are they saying about the Pittsburgh Penguins? If 29 teams are saying the same thing, then we've created an identity."

Video: George McPhee Named Las Vegas GM

When Las Vegas hits the ice in 2017-18 and beyond, what will people say? McPhee gave a couple of hints at his introductory press conference Wednesday.

Hint No. 1: "I've built really entertaining teams -- teams that entertained and teams that won -- and I'd like to do the very same thing here."

Hint No. 2: "The sit-back style of hockey, I don't like it. Teams are attacking all the time and pressuring pucks all over the ice. I love the way Pittsburgh played this year, and they won the Stanley Cup. We'll be doing the same sorts of things."

Perhaps McPhee has learned from his long tenure as GM of the Washington Capitals, from both his success and failure, and has adjusted with the times.

McPhee did build teams that entertained and teams that won. With coach Bruce Boudreau, captain Alex Ovechkin and company, the Capitals became an offensive force, and Washington became a hockey town. In 2009-10, the Capitals scored a League-leading 313 goals and won the Presidents' Trophy.

Problem was, they were upset in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs thanks largely to Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak. They overreacted afterward and got away from their identity, going through four philosophies and three coaches in three-and-a-half seasons.

First, Boudreau tried to go from offensive to defensive. Then, Dale Hunter took the defensive approach to the extreme and played the type of sit-back style McPhee now says he doesn't like. Then, Adam Oates tried to swing the pendulum back toward the middle.

The Capitals continued to fall short of the Eastern Conference Final, and McPhee's contract was not renewed and Oates was fired after the 2013-14 season.

In the context of this opportunity in Las Vegas, that might have been a good thing for McPhee. He moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., and watched son Graham play for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. He spent two years working for the New York Islanders and Hockey Canada, scouting, learning, reflecting.

"When you have a break like that, it gives you an opportunity to reset," McPhee said. "Sometimes as a manager you get so locked into your own team, you don't know the players around the League as well as you'd like to. I'd have to say my best trades were when I really knew the players, and my worst were when I didn't. And so I spent the last couple years watching all kinds of teams at all kinds of levels.

"And you get recharged as well."

Video: What's Next for Las Vegas?

McPhee called Las Vegas a "phenomenal opportunity." Usually when a GM takes over a team, it's because his predecessor failed. He has to clean up his predecessor's mess. But this is a clean slate. Completely clean. The team doesn't even have a name or logo yet.

"In some ways, I like this situation a lot better, and I think most GMs do," McPhee said. "Historically you take over a team that need work. You have to dig out from under some bad contracts or players that aren't getting the job done, and you have to make changes on the staff and everything else. It has to be done. It has to be done. But it's negative fun.

"Here you come in and it's a clean slate, and you get to pick everyone in the organization. I'm looking forward to that."

McPhee has to define the team he wants to build, and he has to hire pro and amateur scouts who can find players who fit his vision in the NHL expansion draft, the entry draft, free agency and eventually trades. McPhee said the coach would come later and work with the talent he has, but he needs to hire a coach who fits his vision too.

"Our mission here is clear: We're going to build an organization and a team that people in Nevada and Las Vegas will be very, very proud of, and we're going to do it quickly, and we're aiming at the Stanley Cup," McPhee said. "That simple."

Sounds like a good start.

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