ARLINGTON, Va. -- George McPhee is entering his 13th and easily most interesting season as the general manager of the Washington Capitals. The expectations for his team couldn't be any higher and the spotlight any brighter, but the Capitals' detractors couldn't be any louder either.
How will he deal with it? McPhee sat down with NHL.com on Friday to give us that answer and more.
Here is what he had to say:
NHL.com: You've talked about being nervous before games. How nervous are you right now?
McPhee: I'm always nervous before the season. I don't think I've been comfortable being comfortable. You just never know what can take place with a team, what things will go well and what things may not go well. Our jobs as managers is to do whatever you can to make your team better. You always want that one more player, one more guy gets us there … no manager is ever going to sit there and say this team is perfect as is.
NHL.com: Are your nerves ratcheted up a bit based on the expectations for this team combined with what happened last season?
"The expectation is we're a legitimate team that can compete for the Cup the next couple of years. So, the expectations and pressures are different, they're a little more acute." -- Caps GM George McPhee
McPhee: I would say so. I think we've all been excited the last couple of years knowing we've got a pretty darn good team and there are some great opportunities to legitimately compete for the Stanley Cup. Everybody comes into the season talking about wanting to win a Cup, but we've really thought the last few years we could do it. The expectation is we're a legitimate team that can compete for the Cup the next couple of years. So, the expectations and pressures are different, they're a little more acute.
NHL.com: I know this team is young, the core is young, but still people always say there is a small window of opportunity to win a championship before the business aspect comes into play, before who knows what can come into play. Will that be stressed greatly with this team?
McPhee: We're hoping that it's a big window that we're looking at, that we can be a good team for a long time. We believe we've been managing the cap well. We've kept players we wanted to keep and we'll continue to do so. It may be a better question to ask in a couple of years from now, but we'd like to think that with the age of our players that this team can be a good team for a long time. We've got a real solid group of young players that are veteran players now, but we've got another wave coming in so we should be in good shape for a while. We'd like to think we're doing this well enough that we can keep the team together, so we're going to try to keep the window open for a while.
NHL.com: This is probably not a make or break year for the Washington Capitals, but in a way do you see how it can be portrayed like that?
McPhee: Yeah, it's not the case, but certainly some people will portray it that way. We think we have a real good team, but if you take a look at this team and take a look at the young players that are coming, this team could be even better in a year or two than it is right now.
NHL.com: What do you take away from last season's loss to Montreal? What lesson learned is there for a GM?
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McPhee: The lesson learned is there wasn't anything else we could have done. It was a very good team, so the lesson learned is to be smart, this is a process, don't blow it up, give them another chance. But it's sometimes the randomness of this game, the lucky break, the bad call, whatever. We had that night when we go up 3-1 in the series and we're trying to get home, but we get fogged out. Instead of being in our beds by 1 o'clock, we're rolling in at 6:30 in the morning, and we could not have been worse at the start of Game 5 than we were. That was the worst 10 minutes we played all year. We got down 2-0, it cost us a game and now it's a series. Then, the goaltender stands on his head. You're sort of on top of the hockey world from the start of training camp all the way through the season, there really wasn't any adversity, a week into the playoffs we're up 3-1 and then in five days it's all over. And we couldn't have played better than we did in Game 6 and we played very well in Game 7, but the defining moments in a series don't always come in the defining games. I look at the start of Game 5 and that was it, that's where we blew it.
NHL.com: Did you have any thought at all this summer about making radical changes?
McPhee: There wasn't any thought about making radical changes; there was a lot of discussion about making changes. That always happens. You have people from outside pushing for certain things and people in the organization saying maybe we should try this and that, but at the end of the day we thought this was a pretty good team. They had 121 points and let's see if they learn from what has happened here and have better success in the playoffs next year, but we've got to get there first.
NHL.com: Defense was an area that people would harp on last year, and you didn't really do much to your defense over the summer. What do you think of your defense? You must think pretty highly of them if you didn't address it in the offseason, right?
McPhee: We were the highest scoring team in the League last year and we scored one goal in games 5, 6 and 7. We had the best power play in the League and we went, what, 1-for-32 or something (in the playoffs). That was the issue. Our goaltending was fine and our defense played fine, but we didn't score like we scored all season long. With respect to our defense, we like what we have now. It's time for (Karl) Alzner and (John) Carlson to play now. (Jeff) Schultz is a veteran now. (Mike) Green is a veteran now. (Tom) Poti is a veteran. And (John) Erskine and Tyler Sloan need to play some more. They're here for a reason. Last year we carried eight D and it was an issue. It's hard for the coaches to sit a couple of guys out every night, and it's hard on the defense. So we wanted to go with seven, and we think it's a pretty good group.
NHL.com: Clearly you have a very interesting dynamic in goal right now with two 22-year-olds. Varly (Semyon Varlamov) is well known in NHL circles and Michal Neuvirth is coming off back-to-back championships in the AHL, so obviously you didn't feel the need to get a veteran. There is a risk factor in that, though, and how much was that weighed when you decided to stick with the two kids?
McPhee: We've been looking forward to doing this for a couple of years. We want to try this. We could have gone out and got a veteran, but we think both of these goaltenders have tremendous upside. Their pedigrees are excellent and they've played a couple of years pro. We think because they're both at the same age and because they'll be competing for games, it's not necessarily a platoon situation but if we were just relying on one of them to play 65 games it might be too much. We think both of them can handle 40-something games, and it might be easier in that regard. Whoever is playing well, we'll play.
NHL.com: Who is the No. 2 center on this team right now?
McPhee: It might be, yeah. But, we'll see how it goes. We're going to play him wherever he needs to play. Fleischmann wants the opportunity to be the No. 2 center, but we've got Mathieu Perreault, who has been outstanding in Hershey the last couple of years and is close to being a national leaguer full time. And then we have the kids, Johansson and we can't rule out Cody Eakin. He's a pretty good player.
NHL.com: Johansson looked like the most polished guy out there in the rookie game Thursday. Just summarize what he can do and why you think he can never play at the junior level, never play in the minors and jump right in to do what Nicklas Backstrom did three seasons ago?
McPhee: It's interesting you bring up that name. We watched (Johansson) at the World Championships last year and I said, "Geez, this kid might be ready to play for us." I'm not sure where in the lineup, but you'd like to have that kind of player in your lineup. We've got a pretty good team that we can surround this kid with and there is not a lot of pressure on him, but to bring that kind of speed and hockey sense to the rink every night would be good for our team. Some people have compared him to Nicky Backstrom, but I don't think that's a fair comparison. Nicky Backstrom is one of the top two or three centers in this League, but he has the same maturity, the same demeanor, disposition (as Backstrom). He's very mature, very level-headed, terrific parents. We think he's mature enough to handle this, and for those reasons we want to try it.
NHL.com: Just to clarify, if it doesn't work out he could go back to Europe or to Hershey, correct?
McPhee: Yes. We're not going to put somebody in over their head. We don't have to do that, but there are certain players -- (Alex) Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Varlamov -- they're mature enough players that you think you can put them in there at 20 years of age and they'll do the job. They have.
NHL.com: One other guy I wanted to ask you about is Alexander Semin. He's on a one-year deal now and he's probably the most enigmatic 40-goal scorer in the League. On a night to night basis, do you know what to expect out of him?
McPhee: No. Nope.
NHL.com: How do you handle that?
McPhee: You try to make him the best player he can be and be as consistent and reliable as you want all players to be, and then you hope it kicks in someday. Maybe this is the year that it happens. But he's a terrific talent, he makes our team better. Some players are low maintenance and don't require a lot of work, and other players do. He requires a lot of work.
NHL.com: Will this be the year that determines if he's part of the future plans?
McPhee: Yup. Yup.
NHL.com: The team seems very hungry, very eager. They can't wait and they want to get back to the playoffs to get another crack, to shut everybody up, but they have a seven-month, 82-game grind before that can happen. Is this one of those situations where you can't put the cart before the horse?
McPhee: Yes. We have to make the playoffs. The objective right now is to have a good camp, get off to a good start and make the playoffs. This team is a confident bunch and they've had a bit of a swagger about them the last couple of years. We think that's good, that's healthy, but they need to make the playoffs and do something special in the playoffs.
NHL.com: And being humbled? Is that a good thing?
McPhee: It is. What they have to learn is the deciding moment in a series doesn't always come in the deciding game. We had our opportunities last year. When you're up 3-1, despite having a really bad night the night before trying to get home, you've got to find a way to come to the rink and be really good for the first 10 minutes. You know if that team wins that game, this is going to be a really tough series now. There is no shame in losing to Montreal. They are a good team that went three rounds. There is no shame in losing to any NHL team, but when you're up 3-1 you have to have the wherewithal and the urgency and the experience in this game to realize you better do something about it now.