In defense of George McPhee for Leafs GM

George McPhee has been in the conversation for the Leafs’ general manager opening for a little while now. Linked to both Toronto and Boston, it seems after a year off – following nearly twenty in the big chair for the Capitals – he’s looking to get back into the NHL. But folks seem divided on whether he might be a good option in Hogtown, and a lot of that has to do with one trade.

With the Bruins deciding this week to go with Don Sweeney as their next general manager, the chances McPhee lands in Toronto may have taken a slight uptick, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Mark Hunter has had his name go to the front of the line in the rumor mill as an internal candidate, but as Shanahan again pointed out on Thursday, the Leafs will add to the group if they believe the fit is right.

The Forsberg Deal

Follow up with anyone who believes McPhee is a poor general manager, and there’s a 96% chance they’ll complain about the Forsberg for Erat deal from the 2013 trade deadline. And with good reason – it turned out terribly for the Capitals, and Forsberg looks to be an elite option in Nashville after a very good rookie season.

But it should be noted, at least, that Forsberg’s NHL path didn’t go as planned from the outset. He was widely considered a potential top-five pick in the year leading up to the 2012 draft, however ended up falling to 11th overall where Washington finally scooped him up. To put it in perspective, the Lightning – the new apparent gold standard of drafting and development – took Slater Koekkoek (a defenseman) while Forsberg was still on the board.

And how much did McPhee truly want to move him? We know he would have pulled the trigger on the deal, but to imply he’s an old boy who wants to sell off the future – especially when his overall body of work suggests anything but (more on that later) – might be a push. There was a process here.

Here’s a McPhee quote pulled from a solid piece RMNB put together breaking down the move:

“It takes some guts to do deals sometime. We have a real good group of pro scouts and amateur scouts. You sift through it, ruminate over it at night, you come back in, talk about it some more, and the vote was unanimous to do it. I make them vote independently without any influence. Write it out, put it on a piece of paper, and then I read through [their responses]. It was unanimous to do it.”

Again, it’s a difficult trade to stomach, no doubt, and it reeks of a manager who’s trying everything to get his team over the hump for a Cup. But it appears to be a one-off, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge McPhee’s tenure with the Capitals on it alone, nor suggest he’d walk into Toronto and start putting young prospects on planes.

Russian (or Swedish or Austrian) Machine Never Breaks

Speaking of prospects, here’s an area where McPhee has shown to be strong. The Capitals have had success in drafting high-end skill guys over the last number of years, and haven’t appeared to be scared away by “The Russian Factor” or anything else related to birth certificates, while it’s clear other teams have. 

Basically, McPhee doesn’t care what Don Cherry thinks about their passport or perceived level of “flashiness”, he’s going to acquire the guys with skill. That fits with what the Leafs are hoping to do going forward.

Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Varlamov, Johansson, and more recently Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, many of the Capitals’ biggest impact players over the last number of years have been from overseas. 

GMs Make Bad Moves

The league is full of good managers who’ve made terrible moves. A mishap here or there is going to happen and that’s fine – you’re dealing in human beings. What you want to avoid is a Dave Nonis situation where essentially everything is run into the ground for two calendar years, but there’s nothing to suggest McPhee is anywhere near that sort of incompetence. In fact his overall body of work is good, and his teams have competed atop the east for years now.

Mike Futa seems like a prime target most fans would be happy for the Leafs to acquire. He works for the Kings, a team that’s won two of the last four Cups, but has also handed out obscene contracts to the likes of Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown. Another major candidate, Julien Brisebois, currently sits alongside Yzerman in Tampa Bay, an organization that forked over 35 million over six years to a 30-year-old Ryan Callahan. 

I’ve yet to see the pitchforks out for those two.

The Rundown

Again, the Forsberg trade stands out under McPhee’s tenure but perhaps his key mistake was bigger picture, unraveling into desperation when the offensive force he built around 2008-2011 couldn’t break through in the playoffs. I won’t get too much into the ensuing mini coaching carousel because this piece is getting long enough, and to be honest we have limited knowledge of the coaches – Hunter and Oates – who succeeded Boudreau while McPhee was still there. But you could argue his best option would have been to just keep Boudreau behind the bench and continue to try and score the lights out with all the weapons he had. He didn’t. It cost him. Now he’s looking for work and he has to convince a management team he won’t make the same type of errors.

Here’s a brief look at some of the notable trades McPhee was involved in under the cap system (from NHLTradeTracker). A mixed bag for sure, but also nothing really serious in terms of lopsidedness outside the above-mentioned Erat deal.


Another interesting part of his resume has been the Capitals’ ability to build or re-stock through the draft, and particularly in the first round. They’ve managed to pull some impact players from the top thirty, carving their way in the NHL with Washington or beyond. 

Going back as far as the draft where they took the highly-skilled Semin, this is a solid run of first rounders.


Shanahan and co. won’t bring in a manager who isn’t going to trust the process, and they’ve made it clear they’re in draft and develop mode. McPhee doesn’t appear to represent a threat to that in the slightest. There’s also no decision on a bench boss to be made here since Toronto just welcomed arguably the best hockey coach in history into the fold for the next decade. As a group they also wouldn’t be interested in a guy who doesn’t offer something they need – which in this case may be in the form of negotiating experience and simply a broader network.

McPhee entering the front office with the Leafs would bring about some questions about how he plugs in to the organizational chart, and what might be a lack of autonomy – likely a change to what he was used to in D.C . But it shouldn’t be open season for fans and media to panic and run him into the ground based on one or two blunders in an overall impressive body of work.

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  • Benjamin

    Nice article Ryan. If I’m being honest, at this stage I just want a general manager. I’m a lot less hung up on who it is than I was say a month ago.

    Some of it is impatience, I’ll admit that. But a lot of it is recognizing that no matter who they are, they will very much be part of a consensus-style managerial approach, not ‘the boss’. Whoever comes in is going to have less control, at least initially, than basically any GM in the history of the NHL. I’m not saying they’ll only be a figurehead but, let’s be honest, the die is pretty much cast for the management structure of the Leafs for at least the next few years.

    I guess the only caveat I’d add is I’d rather not just hand the reigns to Mark Hunter right now. I want the Leafs to add another strong, NHL seasoned candidate who will bring experiences, approaches and lessons from another NHL organization and diversify the voices in the room.

    Still, whether that’s McPhee, BriseBois, Futa, Gorton or another guy who fits the bill above, I’m getting a little indifferent.

  • Where’s all the fans input on this site? Clearly no one cares, even after making a big splash by hiring Babcock. 6 posts all morning in a city of over 4 million. Speaks volumes on what the people think of the Leafs. the proof is in the pudding. Sad

      • silentbob

        Again with the pudding Oilers Dynasty? It is ” The proof is in the putting” you moron. The only pudding is between your ears.
        I do not understand where your arrogance comes from.
        Top ten at the draft 9 straight years, 3 first round picks in 07, four times the first overall including this year yet your team still sux, now That’s talent!
        Hire a GM that was run out of town for mishandling the cap In Boston, A coach with zero playoff success ( I do like Todd McLellan ) and you win a lottery, I hope McDavid doesn’t Daigle on you.
        Just in case you don’t know how to Google…
        I suggest you either crawl back into the hole you slithered out from or find an Oilers board where you can congratulate each other for the fine team you support.

  • silentbob

    There are several good Leaf sites, this one included.I can name 12 off the top of my head devoted entirely to the Maple Leafs. It would take all day to post on every one. I’d welcome any fan to join in the conversation, the question is:

    Why would a fan of another team go to so much trouble to put the exact same ridiculous post on several stories on one Leaf site? Seems awfully needy to me.