If you were wondering whether George McPhee had gotten any better at handling an NHL roster since he was ousted in Washington, and you still had some lingering doubts even after he mostly punted the expansion draft, the end of the Vadim Shipachyov saga should answer all questions with finality.
Let’s not all look at once, but Vegas has one win in its last six games, and it needed to score five goals against a not-great Senators team to do it. Part of their current problem is that they can’t keep even an AHL-level goalie healthy enough to stay competitive, sure, and the team is still second in its division. But we all know hard times are coming even if Marc-Andre Fleury gets healthy sometime soon, because the team isn’t going to shoot almost 12 percent for the rest of the season.
But it’s lucky for McPhee the team got off to that hot start — such a great, fun story, especially in the wake of the shooting there; all that stuff is 100 percent true — because if they were playing to the level we would have all expected and were, say, 5-9-1 instead of 9-5-1, the Shipachyov saga would have people asking a lot more questions than they currently are.
Everyone signed off on his contract termination Thursday, and it’s expected the center will head back to Russia. The good news for Vegas is that it’s only on the hook for the cost of Shipachyov’s contract while he was rostered with the NHL club, and a smaller portion of that from when he was technically buried in the AHL, plus a very small portion of his signing bonus.
After the whole story came to an end and Shipachyov “retired” from the NHL, McPhee revealed that he had a trade on the table but that the player wanted to head back home (not hard to understand), but also that Shipachyov wasn’t playing well enough to supplant even the No. 4 center on the roster. This is an incredible statement to make, because in their most recent game, Vegas used Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as its No. 4 center, and he only got a whopping 10:34 of ice time, second-lowest total on the team.
The idea we’re supposed to buy, then, is that Shipachyov wasn’t good enough to take 10 and a half minutes of ice time against fourth liners and do better than Bellemare (currently a 45 percent possession player with 2-1-3 in 15 games against bottom-of-the-barrel competition).
This means one of three things, and neither one speaks highly of what McPhee has done to this point.
1) McPhee is just glossing over a chemistry/dressing room issue
Maybe Shipachyov, like plenty of other Enigmatic Russians over the years, is just a jerk and no one likes him. If this were Boston or Edmonton or Philly, we’d already have gotten those stories shivving the player on his way out of town. And let’s say this is the real issue: It explains why the player capital-R Refused to report to Chicago. But it also leads you to ask why McPhee didn’t do his homework before bringing aboard a 30-year-old who’d never played in North America at $4.5 million for two seasons.
McPhee would have, of course, had plenty of experience dealing with malcontent-locker-room-cancer Russians with the whole Alex Semin thing several years ago, and as good as Semin was in those days — really, really good — the player’s presence was something that overshadowed his quality to a significant extent. Do you know how much of a prick you have to be for an NHL general manager to look past 271 points in 277 games over four seasons?
That’s not saying Shipachyov would have been nearly point-a-game for Vegas, as Semin was, but the principle is the same. This is a guy who can score, and if you screwed up the vetting process, that’s on you.
Frankly, though, I don’t think that’s it, because why wouldn’t McPhee himself just shiv the guy in the exit interview if that were the case? “It didn’t work out because he didn’t match our culture,” is an explanation the hockey establishment would mostly buy. As with elephants, sometimes hockey players are just jerks.
2) McPhee overestimated Shipachyov at the time of the signing
Hey, it happens all the time: GMs get all excited about what they think is a great talent, throw a bunch of money at it, and then find out, “Oops, that was a mistake.”
But I find it extremely difficult to believe that McPhee misevaluated Shipachyov’s talent level to the point that the guy goes from potentially being the No. 1 center — remember, this is on a team with Wild Bill freaking Karlsson as its actual No. 1 center, so being the top pivot isn’t that hard — to thinking, “Ah well, y’know, he’s more like our No. 5.”
Real McPhee quote from when the team signed Shipachyov: “He is prepared to play a lot and sees that there could be a lot of ice time. We fully expect him to be one of the top six forwards, as well as a major contributor on play on power plays and the penalty kill.”
Now he’s not even good enough to be in your lineup? We’re supposed to buy that?
When was the last time a GM was that wrong about someone? Maybe when Ken Holland got Stephen Weiss at $4.9 million — by the way, that contract would still be happening if it hadn’t been bought out three summers ago — and he only put up 29 points in 78 games over two seasons. And even then, that disappointment was driven as much by injury as by Holland not being good at his job.
So if this kind of misevaluation were the case, and I partially doubt that it is, that says to me McPhee is a world-class misjudger of talent. But again, there’s misjudging things and misjudging things so badly that you think an AHLer is going to be the best center on your team. No one is this bad at their job.
3) McPhee underestimated Shipachyov once he got to Vegas
This seems to me to be the most plausible. Remember, Vegas held Shipachyov, Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch off the NHL roster for a little while in part because McPhee was forcing the team to carry the 52 bad defensemen he took in the expansion draft.
Shipachyov, however, didn’t report to the AHL even though he was assigned there, because his wife doesn’t speak English and reportedly wasn’t doing well alone in a new city on a new continent. Shipachyov did pretty well in the preseason, driving play but only getting one assist. He also scored in his NHL debut when the team finally called him up, but that was his only point in three appearances and he got pushed around at 5-on-5.
So it’s a mixed bag in terms of how he played, but it’s also fair to say he wasn’t given a chance by either Gerard Gallant or McPhee. His total ice time between the preseason and regular season only comes to about 100 minutes over seven games — 14 a night, give or take — and overall he finished a mere 51 percent at 5-on-5. However, despite the promises of a lot of power-play time, he got none in either the pre- or regular season. That, frankly, just doesn’t make sense if you thought for even a second the guy was a potential elite scorer.
Again, there’s no way you take a talent with that many points in that many KHL seasons and say, after 100 minutes of even semi-competitive ice time, “This guy’s worse than Bellemare and it’s not particularly close.”
How much, then, does this have to do with the fact that Vegas shot 12.5 percent and went 8-3 before they called up Shipachyov and got him into a game (in which he scored)? How much does it have to do with the fact that in his three games, the team shot just 9.9 percent over three games, all of which they lost because they didn’t have an AHL goalie in the lineup, before they stopped using him again?
If Vegas bought its own BS 12 games into the season, before cutting bait on a potential top center after three losses that weren’t even his fault, that seems like McPhee being colossally bad at his job.
But the good news is no one has to care or think about this again. First, because Shipachyov is Russian and instead of forcing the team to stash his hefty salary in the AHL, which he almost certainly would have dominated with little effort, he just went back to another country and another league, and kept just $86,000 of his $2 million signing bonus. Second, because the team banked a lot of wins when it was shooting 12 percent. Third, because ah who cares, it’s an expansion team and they’re not supposed to be good anyway. Fourth, because this team is in Vegas and no one’s really paying attention. And fifth, because no one in the hockey media dares question a Good Hockey Man like George “Forsberg-for-Erat” McPhee.
It’s a perfect storm of non-accountability. So McPhee comes out of the mud here sparkling clean, but he shouldn’t. Because no matter how you care to look at it, this is like the fourth thing he screwed up since June. No other GM for no other franchise would be able to absorb that kind of failure rate.
All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.