Washington Capitals and the missing Finns

There has been something nagging at me for about a decade now.  The Washington Capitals have usually had a very diverse roster comprised of the usual Canadians and Americans along with Swedes, Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, and even a Lithuanian and a Ukrainian.  The one nationality that is strongly represented in the NHL that Capitals General Manager George McPhee rarely includes are the Finns.  In this post, I will attempt to quantify his aversion and perhaps go back into his past to see what might have triggered this.  McPhee is widely known and respected as a passionate and loyal person as well as a excellent judge of character and talent, an opinion I share.  At this point, I'm not certain whether McPhee has a bias or if he just knows something we don't.

George McPhee

Is there a Finnish bias? Find out more after the jump!

 

To put numbers to this hypothesis, besides McPhee never signing a Finnish free agent, I looked at two major statistics in the years that McPhee has been GM:  NHL entry draft selections and NHL man-games played by Finns.

 

Since 1997, McPhee's first entry draft as GM, there have been 3,517 draft selections.  In his 14 drafts as GM, McPhee has selected 122 players, or 3.47% of the total (the average is 3.41%).  Of those 3,517 draft selections, 1,213 of them, or 34.5%, were European.  McPhee is right on the average, 42 of his 122 selections, or 34.4%, have been European.  His is not an anti-European bias.  In fact, he ranks above average in selecting players from Russia, Sweden, and, surprisingly, Germany, but he also doesn't draft outside of the more traditional countries.

Since 1997, McPhee has selected 14 of the 282 Russian draft picks (4.96%), 10 of the 260 Swedes (3.85%), and 3 of 31 Germans (9.68%).  He has also selected a fair number from other nationalities:  7 of 212 Czechs (3.3%), 3 of 95 Slovaks (3.16%), and 1 of 38 Swiss (2.63%).

McPhee has only taken 4 of the 184 possible Finns in the entry draft, just 2.17% of the total.  Now, McPhee's 4 Finnish draft picks are not the least in that time period, and the average is just over 6.  Five teams had fewer and four teams had exactly four over that time period, so the lack of Finns drafted is not damning in and of itself, but McPhee is definitely in the bottom third of the league.  Dallas (11) and Anaheim (10) have used the most picks on Finns since 1997, but neither has selected a Finn in the first two rounds.

Finnish Draft Dhoices By Team and Round Since 1997

Finnish Draft Dhoices By Team Since 1997

This highest draft pick McPhee has ever used on a Finn was in 2004 when he drafted highly regarded Sami Lepisto in the 3rd round, 66th overall.  Since 1997, there have been 27 Finns taken in the first two rounds of the draft.  It can be difficult to compare across years with more teams drafting and fewer rounds rounds, but of the of the 43 Finns taken picks 1-90 since 1997, Lepisto was the only one taken by the Caps.  The next highest Finn selected by McPhee was Oskar Osala in the 4th Round, 97th overall in 2006.  Both Osala and Lepisto ended up dressing for the Capitals, but were eventually given away like candy at Halloween.  McPhee's other two Finnish draft picks were Joni Lindlof (7th round, 209th overall, 2002) and Pasi Salonen (5th round, 138th overall, 2004), neither of whom played professionally in North America.

Perhaps a classic example of passing over a Finn was in 2002.  McPhee took WHL product Derek Krestanovich with the 92nd overall pick while three spots later, the Detroit Red Wings drafted Valtteri Filppula.  While McPhee used a 3rd round pick on a player who never made it out of the ECHL, though not unusual, the Wings picked up a key player their 2008 Stanley Cup Run.

Hindsight is 20/20, and this is not a criticism of McPhee's drafting ability; McPhee drafts very well, in fact.  He just doesn't always know what he has.  The best case for this was defenseman Nick Boynton in 1997.  Drafted 9th overall, he was diagnosed with diabetes and McPhee let him re-enter the draft and got a compensatory draft pick in 1999 (Michal Sivek).  Boynton was not affected by the diabetes and made the 2002 NHL All-Rookie team, the 2004 NHL All-Star Game, and won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks this season and is still going strong after 554 NHL games, the most of any McPhee draftee.

So when I point out that McPhee traded away Sami Lepisto to the Phoenix Coyotes for a 5th round draft pick last summer, you'll know that this may not be just limited to Finns.  Lepisto was an extremely promising prospect who lit up the AHL for two years with slick playmaking ability.  He played 14 NHL games with the Caps over two seasons and posted a respectable 5 assists, including some really nice puck movement on the powerplay, but had some issues with penalties and strength as many young defensemen do, including being on the ice for all 3 goals against and a fairly spectacular screw-up behind the goal in his final Capitals game.  After the trade, Lepisto played 66 games last season on the blueline for the 50-win Phoenix Coyotes posting 1 goal, 11 points, and a +14 rating in 18:13 of ice time.  He also won the Olympic Bronze Medal with Team Finland.  He scored one goal in 7 playoff games, as many as any Capital defenseman, and more than Mike Green.

Sami Lepisto
 

The other curious case is Oskar Osala, who played 2 games with the Caps in 2008-09 and was a toss-in along with Brian Pothier and a 2nd round draft pick in the ill-fated trade for Joe Corvo.  Time will tell whether or not Osala amounts to anything, but he was one of the few power forward prospects in the Capitals system and was producing decent numbers in the AHL without any special teams play.  This is for sure, the Capitals gave up a second round pick and Osala for no return since they didn't even advance out of the first round.

Oskar Osala

On the flip side of that, Miikka Elomo was an inherited first round draft pick from 1995 that got into two Caps games in the 1998-99 season, posting one assist.  He was traded to Calgary along with a 4th round pick for a second round pick that became Matt Pettinger, the McPhee draft pick with the second most NHL games played (422).  I'd call that a win.

When you consider that Lepisto and Osala's combined 16 NHL games was nearly half of the total number of man games played by a Finn in McPhee's tenure, that should say something.  Finnish-born players have played a total of 38 NHL games for the Capitals in 12 NHL seasons under George McPhee.  Consider that there have been a total of 20,445 NHL games played by Finns over that time period, the average number of man-games played per team over that time period is 608, and that's not even controlling for seasons not played by the four expansion teams.  In fact, the average number of games played by Finns per team per season is 58.  There are only two NHL teams that have had fewer than 100 NHL games played by Finns over the last 12 years, the St. Louis Blues (59) and the New Jersey Devils (74), which is odd since they have drafted a fair few Finns in that time, 6 for St. Louis and 8 (3 in the top 2 rounds) for New Jersey.  Teams like the Dallas Stars (1,951), the Phoenix Coyotes (1,672), the Philadelphia Flyers (1,194), the Minnesota Wild (1,164) and the Florida Panthers (1,110) have the most games played by Finns.

Finnish Games Played by Season and Team Since 1997-98

Finnish Games Played by Season and Team Since 1997-98

Having Finns on the team is no guarantee of success, nor is a lack of them a recipe for failure.  Since McPhee has been GM, the Red Wings had no Finns in 1997, 1998 or 2002 when they won the Cup, but they had 78 NHL games played by a Finn when they won in 2008.  The Devils also had no Finns in 2000 or 2003 when they won Cups, nor did Tampa Bay in 2004 or the Hurricanes in 2006.  However, the Dallas Stars in 1999 had 74 games, the 2001 Avalanche had 50, the 2007 Ducks had 82, the 2009 Penguins had 7, and the Chicago Blackhawks had their starting goalie, Antti Niemi, play 39 regular season games in 2010.

It's not like teams will lose with Finns on the team, nor are Finns lacking for talent. Look at the Edmonton Oilers.  Jari Kurri won 5 Cups back in the 80s and 90s plus he scored 600 goals and won a Lady Byng Trophy. The Dallas Stars' main Finn during their 1999 championship season was Jere Lehtinen, a 3-time Selke Trophy winner. The Ducks' main Finn was 600-goal man Teemu Selanne, the 1992-93 Rookie of the Year and winner of the first Rocket Richard Trophy in his third time leading the league in goals.  In fact, Selanne and Kurri are 2 of only 8 members of the 70-goal a season club, a club that includes one Russian and no Swedes.

This brings us to the only Finn to play more than 14 games as a Capital under McPhee's tenure, Esa Tikkanen.  He is the only Finn McPhee has ever traded for; he was acquired for Dwayne Hay on March 9, 1998.  It was a good trade, as Tikkanen produced 2 goals and 12 points in 20 games leading up to the playoffs, more production than Hay had in his entire NHL career.  A decorated veteran, Tikkanen already had 242 goals and 615 points in 825 games before the trade, plus 5 Stanley Cups he helped win with 69 goals and 126 points in 165 playoff games.

Tikkanen had also spent the previous two seasons in Vancouver where George McPhee was assistant GM, posting 54 points in 100 games in the seasons after his Rangers beat the Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.  McPhee also surely played against him a few times in the NHL.  McPhee knew what he was getting.

Tikkanen was especially valuable to the Capitals in the playoffs, posting 3 goals and 6 points in 21 games as the Caps advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first and only time.  Tikkanen was a pest, shadowing the top centers of the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators in the first two rounds.  But he screwed up.  The story is now legend, Game 2 of the Final, Tikkanen misses an open net with the Caps leading 4-3 and the Caps lose the game and the series.  While Tikkanen probably should have scored there, the Caps blew a 2-goal third period lead and couldn't win a game at home, either.  The miss didn't help, but it's an easy excuse for getting beaten by a better team.  Without Tikkanen, and without a disallowed goal in overtime against Boston, it's possible the Caps lose in the first round again.

This brings us to the man in question, George McPhee.  Besides being a heck of a hockey player, George McPhee is what you might call a brainiac.  Born in Ontario, he went to college in Ohio, earning a business degree from Bowling Green University in 1982 after four highly successful hockey seasons in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.  McPhee was the first player to ever make the CCHA All-Academic Team in three straight years, plus he was 2nd Team All-CCHA in 1979 and 1981 and 1st Team in 1982 when he won CCHA Player of the Year and the Hobey Baker Trophy as the best college hockey player in the country.

 
McPhee with the Hobey Baker Trophy
 
McPhee went on the play in the NHL, playing 115 regular season (24-25-49) and 29 playoff games (5-3-8) from 1982-89 for the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.  He also had stints in the minors, including winning the 1983-84 CHL championship, the Adams Cup, with the Tulsa Oilers.  When he retired from hockey in 1989, he went to Rutgers to get his law degree, which he earned in 1992.  Upon graduation, he was picked up by the Vancouver Canucks to serve as Assistant GM under Pat Quinn from 1992-97.
 
It is fairly easy to see where McPhee gets his preferences for drafting players.  While in Vancouver, McPhee surely fed his love of the Western Hockey League for draft prospects with the games close by and easy to scout, and it shows in the Canucks drafting record (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, no Finns).  He probably also nurtured his like of Russians, as he got to watch Pavel Bure light up the league with a couple of 60-goal seasons, plus 16 goals and 31 points in 24 playoff games in 1994.  He also briefly saw Alex Mogilny and the early Markus Naslund.  McPhee's love of college hockey players was already cemented before he played for Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey or with 5 different members of the 1980 US Olympic team and former college coach Herb Brooks.  This doesn't explain why he doesn't like Finns, though.
 
The loyalty factor comes into play with McPhee when it comes to acquiring players.  While GM of the Capitals, McPhee traded for or signed 7 players that played for him in Vancouver, including Tikkanen, Donald Brashear, Trevor Linden, Jeff Brown, Scott Walker, Frantisek Kucera, and Corey Hirsch.  He also acquired former Devils teammates Jamie Huscroft and Craig Billington to the Caps.  He even hired three assistant coaches from teams past, former Canuck player Tim Hunter, New York Ranger teammate Glen Hanlon, and Utica Devils rookie teammate Bob Woods.
 
McPhee fighting Rick Tocchet as Glen Hanlon Watches  
McPhee released Tocchet from the Caps in 1997

It is also interesting to note that the defenseman who played the most games and scored the most goals and points in Vancouver between 1992 and 1997 was a Finn, Jyrki Lumme (339 GP, 54-151-205) and Lumme also played the most playoff games and had the most points of any defenseman (53 GP, 5-25-30), only Jeff Brown scored more playoff goals over that period. Another Finn who played for the Canucks in that time was Christian Ruuttu, who played his final 25 NHL regular season games and final 9 playoff games in 1994-95.

Jyrki Lumme

Just for the sake of knowledge, several former Capitals also played for McPhee in Vancouver, including Mike Ridley, who played with McPhee in New York and led the 1985-86 Rangers in scoring.  McPhee also played on the Rangers with future Capital Kelly Miller, who he later managed.

During McPhee's playing days, he played with many Swedes, like the great Anders Hedberg and Tomas Sandstrom.  He also played with a Czech and several Finns.

McPhee played with the great Finnish defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen for 5 seasons in New York.  In all 5 seasons, Reijo scored at least 56 points.  Before leaving New York to win two Stanley Cups in Edmonton, Reijo posted two 20-goal seasons.  His 28 goals in 1984-85 were second in the league only to Paul Coffey, and his 73 points led the Rangers in scoring.  He also posted 8 assists in 16 games as the Rangers advanced to the 1986 Wales Conference Final.

 

McPhee also played with Mikko Leinonen both in the minors and in the big leagues.   McPhee played three seasons with Leinonen with the Rangers in which Leinonen posted 31-77-108 in 159 games, plus they won the 1983-84 CHL championship together.  Leinonen went on to play with the Capitals briefly in 1988-89.

McPhee also played with Raimo Helminen for two years, and Helminen had one good year before tailing off and getting traded during the 1986-87 season.  McPhee also played briefly with Simo Saarinen, who only dressed for 8 NHL games, all with New York in 1984-85. As nearly as I can tell, McPhee did not play with any Finns or Czechs on the Devils, but he did play for coach Jim Schoenfeld when he told Don Koharski to have his doughnut.  This is interesting since McPhee was named GM right after Schoenfeld was fired from the Capitals. McPhee did play with Swedes Patrik Sundstrom and Anders Carlsson with the Devs.

If anything, McPhee's experience with Finns should be positive, at least as positive as it was with Swedes.  He has played with and managed some great Finnish players who contributed greatly to the team's success both in the regular season and the playoffs.  I wouldn't think something as small Tikkanen missing an open net would sway his judgment, but perhaps he doesn't think Finns come through when it really matters.

So this still begs the question, why doesn't McPhee acquire Finnish players now, and why does he let go the ones he drafts?  Is it just because he hasn't found the right deal?  Or is it something else?  And if it is something else, does it even stem from McPhee or does it stem from their end?  Do they just not like DC?

I am not necessarily advocating for change, I would just hate to see the Capitals ignoring an entire talent pool when it comes to acquiring hockey players.  Finland has a strong tradition and has produced many good players, very few of whom have ever played here.  If McPhee's model for success does not include Finland, I have no problem with that, I am just curious as to why the Capitals never seem to Finnish what they started.

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