The Washington Capitals traded one of their top prospects, forward Filip Forsberg, Wednesday at the NHL Trade Deadline in exchange for veteran forward Martin Erat and AHL center Michael Latta. Forsberg, 18, was drafted No. 11 overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and signed a three-year entry-level deal last July. He and Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov have widely been considered “The Future” in these parts, and seeing his name in the trade report had many Caps fans up in arms.
The Caps got off to a lousy start. So bad, in fact, that it drove many fans to a position of grasping for The Future, a rosy time where the Caps will be leading the conference on the back of veterans Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, supported by Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and until Wednesday at 4:30, Forsberg. They even dreamed of a Top 3 pick in this year’s draft to be able to secure the services of Nate McKinnon or Seth Jones.
But a funny thing happened on the way to The Future. The Caps started winning some games. They escaped the basement of the Eastern Conference. And as of the trade deadline, they found themselves just two points out of first place in the Southeast Division, with the No. 3 seed that comes with it. The Caps success on the ice put GM George McPhee in the hot seat off of it.
The biggest trade chip he had at his disposal was UFA Mike Ribeiro, currently enjoying his career year. Not only did McPhee not trade Ribeiro for younger players in order to re-stock the cupboard, but he went in the entirely opposite direction, selling off a cost-controlled asset in order to bolster the playoff chances of the flawed, but still in contention, current club.
Make no mistake, Martin Erat is a good player. He has long suffered playing with inferior offensive talent with Nashville, toiling away in coach Barry Trotz’ defense-first, last and only approach with the Predators. Still, he’s been a perennial 50-plus point scorer in those extreme conditions. Who’s to say what he’ll do receiving passes from Nick Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro, with space afforded to him with Alex Ovechkin or Troy Brouwer on the other wing?
Quick, name me a center Erat has played with in his 11 years in Nashville. Just one.
McPhee was adamant talking with the press afterward that the Caps have one goal in mind: making the playoffs. “We weren’t going to be sellers,” the tight-lipped McPhee said.
“You’re here to win; we’ve been in that mode for a while,” McPhee elaborated. “This is six years of trying to win a Cup. We had our rebuild phase. We sort of rebuild things on the fly around here, but we’d like to continue to make the playoffs while we’re doing it.”
Some might say this thought process is folly. That it’s a zero-sum game: You either go “all-in” one way or the other, stocking your roster full of veterans or prospects. These folks think managing an NHL team is a singular focus proposition.
The fact is, making the playoffs every season is a critical financial goal of any team, especially one that has so much contract money tied up long-term like the Caps do with Ovechkin and Backstrom. The Caps can’t fiscally afford to give up on any chance of making the playoffs. They are within logical sight of the goal, so McPhee — like any good manager — wanted to give his club the best chance to do just that.
That he sacrificed a player that one day may be special is difficult to swallow for some fans. They see a flawed roster, one they think has little chance to compete for hockey’s Holy Grail, and want McPhee to “blow it up”, trading veterans and spare parts for younger players and the promise of The Future.
But no one knows what The Future holds. No one knows if Forsberg is a legitimate franchise-altering player, or just another prospect whose best years were when they were teenagers. Forsberg, for all his pedigree and glowing prospect reports, is 48th in scoring this season in the Swedish secondary league, a league considered less in talent than the AHL.
If an NHL GM has a chance to secure a Top-Six forward to bolster his team’s playoff run for an unproven, 18-year-old prospect that hasn’t even played in North America yet, you gotta do it. That Erat still has two years on his deal and the Caps got a minor league player that was leading his team in assists AND penalty minutes is just icing on the cake.
It’s telling that McPhee made the point of telling the media that the Caps entire scouting department each had a vote on the trade and they all voted in favor of allowing Forsberg to go into the deal. That might be McPhee covering his, ahem, assets. But it could also be an insight into the thought process of how and why the Caps allowed their second best prospect to be dealt for a player 13 years his senior.
McPhee was “damned if he did, damned if he didn’t” at the trade deadline. He’s being pilloried by a certain segment of the Caps fan base for this deal, but he’d be strung up by others if he had dealt popular veteran players for draft picks. There’s real value in the Caps making the playoffs this year, and McPhee showed guts obtaining a player that he thought will make the possibility of that happening greater.