Was this move worth its potential pitfalls? (Flickr)
Wednesday afternoon, as 3 PM and the NHL’s trade deadline came and went, it initially appeared that the Washington Capitals had stood pat on deadline day for the second year in a row. Soon after, there were rumblings that the Capitals had made a big deal. The rumblings grew louder until they were confirmed, but nobody knew what the deal was. What followed was almost two hours of the Capitals having a captive audience, with many people staring at a Monumental Network live stream and many more waiting with bated breath on Twitter. And when the dust settled, we learned that the Capitals had traded arguably their top prospect, Swedish forward Filip Forsberg, to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat and prospect Michael Latta.
When the news of the deal broke, I didn’t want to believe it. Continually beating the drum that the Capitals should look to the future all year, it seemed unfathomable that George McPhee had traded away such a talented and young player for a 31 year-old winger in an attempt to win now, ignoring the very clear indications in front of him that this team needs more help than the addition of Erat can bring.
The issue was not Martin Erat, because Erat is a very good player. A solid two-way winger who has four goals and 17 assists this year, Erat is a player who assuredly makes the Capitals better this year, and probably for the next two years that he is under contract at a $4.5 million annual cap hit. Erat possesses the puck better than the rest of his team did in Nashville, according to BehindTheNet, and has been unlucky both in terms of shooting percentage and PDO, a metric that measures overall puck luck, this season. He gives the Caps something they lost when Alexander Semin signed in Carolina – a good winger to play on the other side of Alex Ovechkin.
No – the issue was, and continues to be, that the Capitals are in a state of transition, whether they want to admit it or not. As Peter Hassett over at RMNB detailed Tuesday in a very well written piece, the Caps have been either mediocre or flat out bad for a majority of this season. They have had flashes of brilliance, yes, but those flashes have been just that – flashes. Much more prevalent have been defensive breakdowns, suspect goaltending, and inconsistent scoring. They are fully capable of being a playoff team in the weak Eastern Conference and weak Southeast Division, but likely lack the depth necessary to win the Stanley Cup, which remains the end goal. Is Erat really the difference between a team treading water and winning a championship?
I don’t think so. Not by a long shot. People will point to the Kings last year as proof that “anything can happen,” and they are free to believe what they choose about playoff hockey. But that narrative is largely incorrect. Teams don’t just magically get really, truly better in the playoffs, nor do average teams win the Stanley Cup. Could Erat be the difference? Absolutely, because he’s very good and the Caps do have some talent. But it’s not very likely at all.
What’s more, the acquisition of Erat puts the Capitals in a huge salary cap pickle for next year. While Erat’s contract does hold value at $4.5 million a year for the next two years, other big contracts handed out by the Capitals mean that with his acquisition, the Capitals have a little more than $10 million available under the cap for nine free agents next year, including Mike Ribeiro, Karl Alzner, and Michal Neuvirth. That number goes up to $13 million if Jeff Schultz is bought out or traded, which seems likely at this point, but it would still be a huge cap crunch for this squad. That, in turn, will make it even more difficult for the Capitals to win in the future, especially because now one of the primary pieces of that future is gone.
Of course, it’s not like the Capitals traded Forsberg for Erat straight up. They did get Michael Latta, who profiles as a two-way center, something no team can have enough of. By all indications, Latta can put up points, win faceoffs, has a great work ethic, and plays the game the right way. Those are all good things, desirable in any player. But Latta is not Forsberg, who was ranked as the top European forward this past draft for a reason: he’s immensely talented and a potential gamebreaker. As solid as Latta appears to be, he is not those things.
In the end, it was all about trying to win now. McPhee, his scouts, and most importantly, Ted Leonsis, believe that this team can be a contender and paid the price for a top-six forward that, in their minds, makes them a better contender for the Stanley Cup. Making the playoffs is what’s important. This deal seems to reek of desperation, which is exactly what I had hoped to avoid during what has so far been a largely lost season, but at the same time is finally the “bold” move that many have been clamoring for McPhee to make since his deadline adds in 2008, which sent the Capitals to the playoffs for the first time in half a decade.
I would have loved to see the Capitals press the reset button and let Forsberg, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and others come into their own as dynamic, relatively inexpensive players as this team once again had a window to consistently contend for the Stanley Cup. Instead, management decided that they would rather try and extend this past window at the price of part of the future. Their decisions and intuitions are the ones that matter.
Only time will tell – but for now, it certainly seems as though the odds are firmly not in the Capitals’ favor.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.