George McPhee has emerged as the frontrunner to be the first GM of the new Las Vegas expansion franchise and history tells us that getting a guy with experience as a GM is a wise move.
The Las Vegas expansion franchise will name the first GM in its history Wednesday, and while it appears that owner Bill Foley has scanned the hockey world interviewing candidates, things keep circling back to two prominent hockey names – Montreal Canadiens assistant GM Scott Mellanby and former Washington Capitals GM George McPhee.
(UPDATE: I spoke with a very reliable NHL source at 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday who told me he has been told by four different people that McPhee will in fact be named GM.)
When the team interviewed candidates for the job recently, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Jason Botterill put in a strong performance. But the sense in the hockey industry is that Foley and former NHLer Murray Craven, who is assisting him in the process, settled on Mellanby and McPhee early on as their frontrunners and someone would have to really impress them in order to unseat them from that position.
Regardless of what choice the franchise makes, it will have to do so in a hurry. It’s believed that Jeff Crisp, a scout with the Anaheim Ducks, will be part of the scouting staff, but the rest will be up to the new GM. It’s believed that McPhee could be the one, which would be a good choice for the new franchise.
Because as tempting as it might be to hire a fresh new face, history tells us that the most successful expansion franchises were those whose hockey departments were headed up by men who had previous experience as a GM. Going back to when the San Jose Sharks joined the league in 1991, there have been a total of nine expansion teams added to the league. Six of those teams named an experienced GM as their first GM. The three exceptions were the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000 (Doug MacLean), the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999 (Don Waddell) and the Ottawa Senators in 1992 (Mel Bridgman).
In fact, the difference in early success of expansion teams that hire experienced GMs to lay the foundation and those who don’t is stark. The six teams that hired experienced GMs – the Minnesota Wild in 2000 (Doug Risebrough), the Nashville Predators in 1998 (David Poile), the Florida Panthers in 1993 (Bob Clarke), the Anaheim Ducks in 1993 (Jack Ferreira), the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 (Phil Esposito) and the Sharks in 1991 (Jack Ferreira) have a combined points percentage in their first three seasons of .423 and made it to their first playoff in an average of 3.83 years.
The teams that didn’t hire an experienced NHL GM, by contrast, struggled mightily their first three seasons. Their points percentage in that time was just .306 and they took an average of seven years to make the playoffs, almost twice as long as it took teams led by experienced GMs to start. The Wild and Panthers were in the playoffs three years after they joined the league, with the Panthers making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final in their first playoff and the Wild getting to the Western Conference final. The expansion team with an experienced GM that took the longest to make the playoffs was the Predators, who took six years to get there, but the person they put in place at the time is still their GM and the Predators have long been a contending team.
By contrast, it took the Blue Jackets nine seasons to play in their first playoff game, the Thrashers seven years and the Senators five years.
Of course, having an experienced GM doesn’t always lead to good things. The worst team in NHL history is the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, an expansion team that had an 8-67-5 record and finished with a .131 points percentage. They were led by Hall of Fame player Milt Schmidt, who was previously GM of the Boston Bruins and led them to two Stanley Cups in three seasons. The team tied with the Senators as the second-worst team of the NHL’s modern era is the Sharks, who went 11-71-2 in their second season.
McPhee, meanwhile, has a long history of involvement in the game at the management level. He was the Capitals GM from 1997 when Poile left to take over the Predators and held the job until 2014. He is currently a special advisor to New York Islanders GM Garth Snow. If the Vegas team is going to have any designs on early success, they’re going to need a person who knows all the back channels of doing business in the NHL and someone who has the contacts to quickly put together a hockey department and start hiring scouts in time to look at the summer World Junior camps.