Caps Hire Wilson and McPhee
By Jason Sheehan, Washington Capitals Correspondent
The ongoing construction at MCI Center had closely resembled the state of the Washington Capitals.
In that time, Washington fired its longtime general manager, David Poile, and its coach, Jim Schoenfeld. While the Capitals' front office was getting a facelift, nails were being hammered into the facade at MCI Center. But now, things have changed.
The Capitals named Ron Wilson as their next head coach and George McPhee as their next general manager Monday at MCI Center, closing the book on a chapter that took a little over a month to complete.
Terms of their contracts were not disclosed, but sources say Wilson signed a three-year contract worth $2.1 million.
Poile was fired last month, while Schoenfeld was released last week. Schoenfeld, though, wasn't on the unemployment line for long. As the Capitals were unveiling their new dynamic duo, the Phoenix Coyotes held a news conference announcing the signing of Schoenfeld as their new head coach. Poile was a finalist for the general manager's post in St. Louis, but was overlooked in favor of Larry Pleau.
But back to domestic affairs, where pencils rise from the earth (The Washington Monument) and Presidents conduct their business. Unlike past Presidents in the White House (Bill Clinton excluded), Capitals Owner Abe Pollin, 73, decided that youth would serve him well in running his franchise. Wilson, 42, and McPhee, 38, form the youngest coach/general manager tandem in the NHL. The twosome worked together in Vancouver from 1990 to 1993, where Wilson was an assistant coach and McPhee was the vice president of hockey operations.
"We know each other well enough that I think this is going to be an easy transition," McPhee said.
If their first news conference is any indication, Wilson and McPhee's tenure in Washington will be quite entertaining, and different than anything Capitals fans have seen in the past. Even if the Capitals fail to meet expectations next season, Wilson's brilliant use of the English language will bring tremendous joy to beat-writers working on tight deadlines.
"I'm known as a good quote, but the bottom line here is you have to be a good coach," Wilson said. "Trust me, you're going to see a lot of exciting hockey over the next couple of seasons and we're going to be heading in the right direction.
"When you're rewarded with something, you have the opportunity to go to Disneyland or Disneyworld," he continued. "I'm fortunate to show up here today at the MCI Center and coach what I think is potentially a Stanley Cup winning team."
Wilson spent all four years of Anaheim's existence behind the bench, accumulating a record of 120-145-31. He took the Mighty Ducks to their first playoff appearance this past season and even won a series in the first round against the Phoenix Coyotes (seven games). They bowed out in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings (sweep).
Although he was fired last month, Wilson is coming off the hottest season in his coaching career. Before guiding the Mighty Ducks to the playoffs, he led a group of talented American-born players to a championship in the World Cup of Hockey last summer. That feat proved Wilson could take a group of talented players, who weren't familiar with their teammates, and mold them into a cohesive unit. Of course, having a sense of humor, as Wilson does, can go a long way in the hockey business.
"It was like being the flavor of the month," Wilson said, looking back on his adventures of being unemployed. "Everybody's taking a lick, but you don't know if they're going to buy the whole ice cream cone. (The Capitals) finally bought the whole cone."
Wilson hopes to fine tune the Capitals' offense, which has been among the worst in the league for many years, by giving them a bigger leash to work with.
"I think there are plenty of guys on this team with speed," Wilson said. "Now we have to employ a style that plays to the strengths of those players. Lord knows they know how to play defense -- Jim Schoenfeld did a great job teaching them how to defend.
"My job is to get them to play a little more open offensively and to get them to have a little more fun. I think if the players are having fun, the fans will have fun, too."
Wilson, though, is extremely grateful for the job Schoenfeld did fine tuning the Capitals' blue line. Now, he will try to find a way to utilize the defense by spending a minimum amount of time in their own zone.
"What I like about the Capitals is that there is potentially a lot of offense at the blue line," Wilson said. "We've got great goaltending and great defense that can get the puck up, so our focus is going to be spending less time in our own zone.
"Of course, it's going to take some time, because the players have to learn to trust me and break a lot of habits."
He also hopes bringing a family-like atmosphere into the locker room will help the Capitals reach new heights as the tools at the MCI Center are switched from a jackhammer to a zamboni.
"I don't have a particular style of play; more a style of dealing with people," Wilson said. "The important thing is to create an environment where, as warriors, players have to be able to go into the trenches and make sure the guy in the trenches with them isn't ducking."
Right now, no one is ducking in Washington, except for construction workers who see cranes wiz by their heads.
McPhee, meanwhile, has never had the luxury of being able to call himself, "Mr. General Manager." In the past, he was the vice president of hockey operations in Vancouver. Now, he is assuming the role of general manager, and hopes he can take the knowledge he obtained from Canucks General Manager Pat Quinn with him as he assumes his new post.
"You can get to the playoffs with a grinding team and you might win a round, but you have to have speed and skill and balance to win the Stanley Cup," McPhee said of a Capitals team that has always struggled in the first round. "You can teach good players to play well defensively, but you can't teach defensive players to score."
For the Capitals' sake, they cannot have the majority of their goals scored by defensemen and right wing Peter Bondra. They will have to spread out the scoring to be successful. That scenario was nearly impossible last season, as the Capitals lost 361 man-games to injury. McPhee hopes to find a magic potion to treat broken ankles and separated shoulders before these injuries even happen.
"I looked at the list yesterday and was astonished with the number of injuries and the severity of the injuries," McPhee said. "We will definitely want to take a closer look at that."
The Capitals still have a couple employees whose future is in limbo. Schoenfeld's departure left assistant coaches Keith Allain and Tod Button wondering if they will be standing beside the next coach when the puck drops for the 1997-98 season. Allain stands the best chance at keeping his job. He was Wilson's assistant at the World Cup of Hockey. Button, however, can only hope his services will be needed.
"My preference in that area is to let Ron pick his first guy and then his second guy we'd have to agree on," McPhee said.
In other matters, the scouting staff will stay intact as the June 21 NHL Entry Draft looms on the horizon.
Last week, when Schoenfeld was fired, Pollin said he was committed to making the Capitals his top priority. In that span of time, he appears to be holding true to his word. Pollin invested a considerable amount of time interviewing candidates for the vacant general manager and coaching positions. And on Monday, he appeared to be happy with the choices that were made.
"We were convinced that these two young, vibrant people were going to be a great addition to our club," Pollin said. "George and Ron have all the tools necessary to take the Capitals to new heights."
For now, McPhee knows he needs to be careful when dealing with other general managers. He thinks they will try to rob him of his top players, without giving him much in return. McPhee is currently doing his homework on the Capitals to avoid a highway robbery from taking place in the foreseeable future.
"I'd better be circumspect when talking to the other general managers because the veteran guys are going to take advantage of the young guy," McPhee said. "What I've got to do is watch a lot of videotape and get to learn this team as quickly as possible."
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