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General manager George McPhee knew it would be the biggest challenge of his career when he took over as architect of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights organization.
What he didn't know was how much he would enjoy it.
"It's been the most fun I've ever had in hockey," said McPhee, the 1982 Hobey Baker Award winner as the top college player, former NHL player and longtime general manager of the Washington Capitals.
The NHL has grown from six to 31 teams over the last 50 years, and yet it seems as if the Las Vegas-based team is the most important expansion club in league history.
"We've been overwhelmed by the interest in our franchise," McPhee said. "Vegas is a worldwide brand, and it is the tourism capital of the world. Forty-two million people come here every year. Now it's becoming a destination for pro sports teams, and we have the unique opportunity to be the very first."
McPhee was fired by the Capitals in April 2014 after a 17-year run that did not include a Stanley Cup title but did include many successful seasons, as well as McPhee drafting star players such as Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Now the 58-year-old is captivated by the challenge of transforming a blank canvass into a work of art.
"I haven't had to work with wins and losses," McPhee said. "I could be real objective with the game. I could watch all of the different levels and study the game. I got to try to figure out where the game is going and what I like about it."
He spent half of a day talking to former GM Doug Risebrough about his experiences starting the expansion Minnesota Wild. He has meetings planned with legendary Bobby Clarke about what he went through with the upstart Florida Panthers. He has looked at the histories of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators among others.
"We talked for five hours with Doug, and it could have gone another five," McPhee said.
McPhee had been a general manager until 2014, but he felt the game had changed significantly in the two years between his departure from the Capitals and his hiring by the Golden Knights in July.
The emphasis on analytics is far greater, a welcome trend he saw coming. He has hired two experts for his staff.
"I've read about analytics for two years," McPhee said. "The way I view it is you get the opinions from the scouts and the math and science from the analytics guys."
Some executives surround themselves with friends in hopes of building loyalty. But McPhee went in a different direction.
"I didn't want to hire friends, because when you hire friends, things change," he said.
He said his best hire was assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon. "He was someone I didn't know," McPhee said. "I had people in mind, but I was told I should talk to him. Within a few minutes on the phone, I knew this guy was a deep thinker. He was a great hire right off the bat because he does a great job of networking."
That's important, because knowledge is king in building an expansion team. The Golden Knights can already make trades to acquire players. Also, they can make deals by guaranteeing they won't take a certain player in the expansion draft.
For example, if the Wild were forced to expose defenseman Jonas Brodin in the expansion draft, they could theoretically give the Golden Knights a draft pick and prospect to take someone else off their roster.
Teams will also be looking to trade high-salaried players to the Golden Knights in exchange for assets. Vegas will need higher-priced players because it must reach the salary cap floor.
What nobody, including McPhee, knows is how good Vegas could be in its first season. The NHL has limited team protective limits to the point that the Golden Knights will have better players than any other expansion team in NHL history.
Clubs can choose to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight defensemen/forwards (regardless of position) and one goalie.
What it means is that Vegas is likely to primarily obtain third-line forwards and No. 4 defensemen.
"It's hard to know where we will be," McPhee said. "But the rules are better for us, so we think we will be able to build a better base. But historically you have to build through the draft."
Vegas will enter the draft lottery with the same odds as the third-worst team, meaning it will pick no later than sixth. Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, there is no Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine or Jack Eichel available in this draft.
McPhee believes, maybe hopes, he will be able to attract unrestricted free agents because he can offer them life in Las Vegas.
"We will sell the idea that we have everything we need to win," McPhee said.
The Golden Knights have sold 14,000 season tickets, and hockey fever is sweeping the city.
McPhee doesn't know who will be on his first roster, but he does know the style he wants to play.
"I like offensive teams," he said. "There are different ways to win, but I like the Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit style. That appeals me."
He made one concession: "We will have to have a little size and muscle to compete in that conference."
One takeaway he remembers from his meeting with Risebrough was the need to develop a competitive attitude immediately on an expansion team.
Said McPhee, "Young players develop more in a 2-1 game than a 7-1 game."
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