August 1, 2014

OPINION: Square peg Erat wants out; McPhee will comply

Never a dull moment for the Washington Capitals.

First came the report on a Czech language site. Then the confirmation from the horse’s mouth: Martin Erat demanded a trade from the Caps. After, GM George McPhee indicated he was willing to comply with the veteran player’s requests. Then, coach Adam Oates confirmed McPhee’s opinion that with Brooks Laich healthy, Erat just had a hard time fitting in on the Caps roster.

Obtained (along with center Michael Latta) for former first round prospect Filip Forsberg at last season’s trading deadline, Erat now arguably represents McPhee’s biggest acquisition blunder.

Erat, 33, has been a top-six forward on every team he’s been a part of. Eight times in his career he’s scored better than 16 goals in a full season, and he started this one relegated to fourth line minutes with the likes of a 19-year old rookie and Latta, the player he was traded with, in his first stint in the NHL.

It’s no wonder he was dissatisfied with his playing time.

When McPhee made the deal last season, Laich was still out, rehabbing from his groin injury and surgery. Now skating full-time minutes, Laich has recaptured his old spot in Oates’ lineup, to the detriment of Erat’s minutes.

Both McPhee and Oates mentioned Laich’s health as a key to Erat’s playing situation, as if neither player were capable of filling a different role.

At the start of the season, Laich resumed play on the second line, pushing Erat past the third line on his way to less than 10 minutes of total ice time in each of the team’s first four games and five of its first seven. At some point early in the season, Erat met with McPhee to discuss the situation, confirmed by both men Monday after practice. Erat’s minutes have picked up recently, but still dissatisfied, Erat reiterated his concern and requested a trade to a team that will utilize him in a manner more customary to his career norms. According to McPhee, Erat has been “really flexible” on the teams he may be traded to, with respect to his full no movement clause.

That led us to the bombshell Monday morning.

This is very clearly a situation where this organization trusts the history and past performance of Laich, a player to whom they gave a six-year, $27 million contract two seasons ago. What remains to be seen, however, is if Laich will return to the 20-goal, two-way player he was before his groin injury or not. So far this season, it’s not. In 24 games, Laich has recorded three goals and two assists, fifth on the team in total time on ice, while Erat has a measly six assists in his 23 games.

A lot of folks did not like the Erat trade from the very beginning, as the Caps were very obviously trying to plug a hole in a playoff run while surrendering the team’s second-rated prospect in the process. McPhee said at the time it was not a rental; that Erat had two more years on his deal and that the team was looking long-term when they made the trade. On Monday, McPhee reiterated the organization didn’t know if Laich would be ready for the start of this campaign, and when he was, Erat then became the odd man out.

What’s frustrating to Caps fans, now, is that the team gave up a player that made Nashville’s opening night roster and would be playing top-six minutes there — at age 19 — were it not for a nagging upper-body injury, for a player that recorded a total of nine points in his short stint with the Capitals.

Trades are always difficult to judge until time has passed from the event, but this deal now has unmitigated disaster written all over it, unless McPhee can flip Erat for a first round pick or a player that can slide into a top-four spot on the defense, which will be highly unlikely now that the player’s desire is open in the public. There are teams that will take Martin Erat and what he can bring on the ice, but his return will be pennies on the dollar for what McPhee had to give up to acquire him.

It’s unfortunate asset management for a team that is hamstrung by salary cap implications — like Brooks Laich’s $27 million deal.

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