By Ben Raby
The Washington Capitals will celebrate a franchise milestone this year with the 15th anniversary of the teams first and only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The 1997-98 season was also the Caps first under general manager George McPhee and while players, coaches and uniforms have since come and gone, McPhee remains a constant.
As the NHLs third longest tenured GM (behind only New Jerseys Lou Lamoriello and Carolinas Jim Rutherford), McPhee has seen his team go from a Stanley Cup contender to a franchise in desperate need of a rebuild to one of the NHLs marquee organizations.
With this summer marking the 15th anniversary of McPhees joining the Capitals, weve counted down five of the most significant in-season moves that hes made as the teams GM.
LATE-SEASON ACQUISITIONS OF ESA TIKKANEN & BRIAN BELLOWS (1998):
Sure it was with a roster he had mostly inherited from his predecessor David Poile, but among McPhees greatest achievements in Washington was guiding the 1997-98 Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup appearance.
With his team seeking home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, McPhee added some much needed grit and experience to the 1997-98 Caps in the final weeks of the regular-season.
First McPhee acquired five-time Stanley Cup champion Esa Tikkanen from the Florida Panthers for prospect Dwayne Hay (Hay went on to record six points in 79 career NHL games) and two weeks later McPhee signed veteran Brian Bellows who had just completed a season in Germany.
Tikkanen may be best remembered for missing an open net in Game 2 of the 1998 Finals that could have given the Caps a series split in Detroit, but he and Bellows had plenty to do with getting the Caps to the Finals in the first place.
Tikkanen had 12 points in 20 regular-season games with the Caps and added six more points in 21 playoff games. Bellows meanwhile was signed so late in the regular-season that he played in just 11 games (collecting nine points), before netting six goals and 13 points in 21 playoff games.
Bellows game-winning overtime goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals gave the Caps a series win against the Boston Bruins.
PETER BONDRA TRADE LANDS CAPS BROOKS LAICH (2004):
It could not have been easy for McPhee to trade Washingtons all-time leading scorer in 2004, but in sending Peter Bondra to the Ottawa Senators, McPhee landed a 20-year-old prospect that would become an integral piece on his team for the next decade.
Brooks Laich has said before that shortly after his joining the Capitals, he met McPhee in the bowels of the Verizon Center at which point his new GM told him that he looked forward to having him play in Washington for the next 15 years.
Eight years after McPhee made that claim, Laich is now the longest tenured player on the team and one of the clubs undisputed leaders.
Laichs offensive numbers may not rival those of Bondra (although Laich is 23rd all-time among franchise scoring leaders), but his versatility and ability to play in all situations has made him a key cog in recent years as the Caps have emerged as one of the NHLs marquee clubs.
ROBERT LANG TRADE LANDS CAPS TOMAS FLEISCHMANN AND MIKE GREEN (2004):
McPhee made NHL history in 2004 when he became the first GM to ever trade a player that led the NHL in scoring at the time the deal was made.
But in sending Robert Lang to the Detroit Red Wings, McPhee landed prospect Tomas Fleischmann (who would spend parts of six seasons with the Caps) and a first-round draft pick that was eventually used on Mike Green.
In 2008-09, Green set an NHL record for defensemen with goals in eight straight games, and he became the first Caps blue liner in 16 years to score at least 30 goals in a single season.
While Greens offensive numbers have declined over the past two years and questions remain about his ability to stay healthy, the Caps rewarded the 26-year-old last month with a three-year 18 million deal.
BRENDAN WITT TRADE LANDS CAPS VARLAMOV; FORSBERG (2006):
McPhee continued to rebuild the Capitals during the 2005-06 season and traded defenseman Brendan Witt- among the longest serving Caps at the time- to the Nashville Predators for Kris Beech and a first-round draft pick.
It was rare for Predators GM David Poile- McPhees predecessor in Washington- to trade away first round draft picks but with his club making a push for a deep Stanley Cup Playoff run, McPhee saw an opportunity.
The pick the Capitals acquired from Nashville wound up as the 22nd overall selection in that 2006 Entry Draft and the Caps used it wisely.
With Olie Kolzigs playing career winding down, the Caps selected Simeon Varlamov with Nashvilles first-round pick before selecting Michal Neuvirth with their own second-round selection just 12 picks later.
While Varlamov has since been traded to Colorado, McPhee and the Caps may continue to reap the benefits of the Brendan Witt trade for years to come. In sending Varlamov to the Avalanche last July, the Caps secured Colorados first-round pick (11th overall pick) in the 2012 Entry Draft which they used on prospect Filip Forsberg.
DEADLINE ACQUISITIONS LEAD CAPS BACK TO PLAYOFFS (2008):
With the midseason hiring of Bruce Boudreau and the emergence of Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom as bona fide stars, the Capitals were in the hunt in 2008 for their first playoff berth in five years.
As the Trade Deadline approached though and the Caps having lost three straight games and five of six overall, McPhee felt that his team was in need of more experience and grit and additional help in goal.
Enter Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke and Cristobal Huet who McPhee acquired in three separate trades on Feb. 26, 2008.
The Capitals went 14-4-0 after the Trade Deadline, winning 12 of their final 13 games and clinching the Southeast Division on the final night of the regular-season. Huet went 11-2-0 down the stretch and finished the regular-season on a personal nine-game winning streak.
While Cooke and Huet signed elsewhere after the 2008 season, Fedorov would stick around for the 2008-09 campaign and went on to score one of the biggest goals in Verizon Center history. Fedorovs game-winning goal in the final minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers gave the Capitals their first playoff series win in 11 years.
What do you think were George McPhees best in-season transactions? Share your comments below.