Capitals general manager George McPhee took a long look at his roster, saw the need for some additional scoring on the left wing, and identified Martin Erat as a possible solution.
That’s when the real work behind the scenes began.
First, McPhee needed a strong sense of what kind of player he would be getting if he traded for the Nashville Predators’ 31-year-old winger.
“He’s a real good veteran player, terrific speed, good [hockey] sense and plays the game right,” McPhee said.
Then he went to Capitals right wing Joel Ward, who spent three years with Erat in Nashville.
“He said after their captain [Shea Weber], he was a go-to guy in terms of commitment and leadership,” McPhee said. “He works hard on and off the ice.”
Once it was established that the Caps wanted Erat and that he was available – Erat said he asked Predators general manager David Poile to be traded – the next step for the Capitals was to decide whether they could trade the player Poile wanted in return – forward prospect Filip Forsberg.
“Is it worth it?” McPhee wondered. “We were looking at our hockey club and we said we’d like to add another top six forward if we can. How soon will Forsberg be able to play?
“The right side is pretty stacked right now with [Alex] Ovechkin, [Troy] Brouwer and [Joel] Ward and [Eric] Fehr and [Tom] Wilson. That’s a pretty thick group there, so can we add a player that can fill out the other side of the roster?”
Because Forsberg was the 11th player taken overall last June, McPhee wanted more than just Erat. The Predators were offering a draft pick, but the Capitals’ scouting staff wanted 21-year-old center Michael Latta, a gritty two-way center who had eight goals, 26 assists and 184 penalty minutes for the Milwaukee Admirals.
“He’s a real abrasive player,” McPhee said. “Our scouts said we’d love to get this kid if you can make him part of the deal.”
Once he identified the three players involved in the deal, McPhee asked his scouts to write down their thoughts and vote on whether they’d make the trade.
“The vote was unanimous to do it,” McPhee said.
So what does the trade say about McPhee and his expectations for the Caps this season?
“It’s about trying to be a good team now and in the future,” McPhee said. “The players have been playing really well and we weren’t going to be sellers. We wanted to help them out if we could by adding another player and we did.”
Did the Caps improve themselves with the trade? Absolutely.
Erat will give the Caps an offensive boost they hope will carry them deep into the playoffs. He also has two more years remaining on his contract, which carries a cap hit of $4.5 million in each year.
“He can continue to be a real consistent player,” McPhee said. “He’s got speed and when a guy can skate he can usually play for a while.”
Erat said he asked Poile a couple weeks ago what his long-term plans for the Predators were and when he was told they wanted a youth movement he gave Poile a list of 10 teams to whom he would accept a trade.
Erat said the Caps were on that list because “they’re always in the playoffs and they have a great team. They just have to show it on the ice. They’re missing a couple pieces here and there but they have a chance to win.”
The real question in this trade is just how good Forsberg will be when he plays in the NHL.
“They’re never easy decisions,” McPhee said. “It takes some guts to make them sometimes.”
The message, however, is clear. Now that they’re two points out of the division lead, McPhee wants to see what the Caps can do with a healthy lineup bolstered by a crafty veteran.
“The expectations are no different than what they were at the start of the season,” McPhee said. “… To be a playoff team and you never know once you get in there. I think we’ve proven that when we’re healthy we’re pretty good. I just tried to make us a little bit better.”