Earlier this season, Caps left wing Martin Erat quietly went to Washington general manager George McPhee and requested a trade. Last week, the player again went to McPhee and reiterated that request.
Sometime between then and now, Erat also spoke with media in his native Czech Republic, making his request known to the media for the first time. Word of Erat’s request leaked out to the general public today, and the concerned parties discussed the matter shortly thereafter.
At a press conference after the Capitals’ Monday morning practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, McPhee was asked when Erat made his initial trade request.
“A couple of weeks into the season,” responded McPhee. “And then he was playing more but came in last week and reiterated his position.
“I admire him for it. He’s been professional and he came and he’s not pointing fingers or anything like that. He just basically said, ‘These things happen and it’s not working out for me and I’d like an opportunity someplace else.’ I said, ‘Okay, we’ll try to accommodate.’ There are no promises on when it happens. We’ll see how long it takes.”
Erat held court for reporters after practice as well.
“I never got the chance,” lamented the 32-year-old winger. “I never played more than 15 minutes here. It’s time for me to move on.
“It’s a long time coming, starting from training camp. I didn’t get any chance, any look, and it’s time for me to go.”
Erat was acquired last April 3 – at the NHL trade deadline – from the Nashville Predators along with center Michael Latta. Washington dealt teenaged prospect Filip Forsberg – the 11th player chosen overall in the 2012 NHL draft – to obtain Erat.
At the time of the deal, it made a lot of sense for all parties involved.
Nashville was out of the playoff hunt, the Caps had a dire need for help on the left side and Erat had asked Predators general manager for a change of scenery.
“I asked [Poile] a couple of weeks ago,” Erat told reporters in a conference call in the wake of the trade nearly eight months ago. “I approached and asked him what’s the long-[term] plan for Nashville and where the organization was going to go. In the last two weeks it came to this. I gave David [a list of] 10 teams and I approached him [and asked] if I could be traded.”
At the time of the trade, Washington had gotten 46 goals and 93 points from its right wingers and 24 goals and 87 points from its centers in 36 games to that point of the season. But the Caps had gotten just 15 goals and 43 points from the left side, and they were concerned that Brooks Laich’s health might not hold up.
So McPhee pulled the trigger, obtaining an 11-year NHL veteran who was tied for the Predators team lead in scoring at the time of the swap.
All parties seemed thrilled with the deal at the time.
“I really don’t care if I play right [wing] or left or if I am going to play on the first or third line,” said Erat last April. “I just want to win.”
“We like the player a lot,” said McPhee in April. “He’s a real good veteran player. Terrific speed, good sense, plays the game right. I had a good talk with Joel Ward about him as a person, his character. He said that after their captain [in Nashville], he is sort of their go-to guy in that room in terms of commitment and leadership in everything that he brings. Real committed on and off the ice, works hard on and off the ice.”
For whatever reason, Erat never really found his footing here in the District. Like the rest of his teammates, it took Erat some time to get accustomed to the nuances of Oates’ system. There were also a couple of injuries last season, and then Washington’s depth chart took on a decidedly different look over the summer and into training camp.
In just his second game with the Caps last April 6 in Florida, Erat suffered a lower body injury that sidelined him for three games. In his second game back in the lineup, he had a goal and an assist in an April 16 game against Toronto. He had an assist the next night, giving him a goal and three points in his first five games with the Caps.
Thus far, that’s the lone goal Erat has scored in his 32 regular season games as a Capital. He has had eight assists and nine points. Erat suffered a wrist injury in Game 4 of the Caps’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Rangers last spring, going pointless in the four games in which he did play.
Laich’s return to health and the offseason addition of center Mikhail Grabovski altered the landscape of the Capitals’ forward corps going into the season. Caps coach Adam Oates briefly experimented with Erat at center during the preseason, and the veteran spent the first seven games of the campaign skating on Washington’s fourth line.
When rookies Tom Wilson and Michael Latta made the opening night roster, McPhee found himself with more depth than necessary up front, and he subsequently traded center Mathieu Perreault to Anaheim.
“Things change over the summer,” notes McPhee. “We signed Grabovski and Brooks is healthy. We didn’t know at the end of the year whether Brooks would be back this year. Tom Wilson makes the team and Latta is here. Things change.
“I’ve always believed that you’ve got to give your team the best chance you can give it going into the playoffs. We were at the deadline, and we missed Brooks a lot and we didn’t know whether he was going to be able to complete the season. And we made a deal to help the team.
“You want to give your team the best opportunity possible. We will always do that, because you can’t have the guys work their guts out all year and then not help them out at the deadline if there is something there to help them with. And so we made that deal. No regrets. We did what we had to do then, and we’ll do what we have to do now.”
To be fair, Erat has also been deployed very differently than he was in Nashville. After averaging well over two minutes a game of power play time and playing on the Predators’ top power play unit for most of his career in Music City, Erat came to a team where his power play skills were not required. He has averaged about 47 seconds of power play time per game with Washington, producing just one point (an assist) on the Capitals’ extra-man unit.
Before he arrived in Washington, Erat had 163 career goals and 318 assists in regular season play. More than a quarter (42) of those goals and exactly a third (106) of those assists came on the power play.
“If you look at it from last year,” said Erat this morning, “in the games I played 12 minutes, like 12 or 13 minutes. In one game I played like 18 minutes and that was it.”
After averaging at least 17:59 per game in each of his last six seasons with the Predators, Erat’s ice time dipped to 13:55 a night in nine games with Washington last season, and to 13:08 per contest in 23 games thus far in 2013-14.
“I think chemistry is all of it,” says Oates, when asked why Erat’s production has diminished. “He came from Nashville, playing first power play. He came here and you’re not first power play. So there’s four minutes [a night] right there, and they’re quality minutes and that affects production and then that trickles down. And unfortunately he got hurt. He got hurt twice for us. So he never really got a chance to get his legs going. And then we hit [training] camp. Coming out of camp, every year teams are different. We’ve got [Grabovski] now. We were in search of chemistry and we still are. We talk about this every day.”
Oates put Erat on a line with Laich and Troy Brouwer in mid-October, and the unit netted two even-strength goals in its first game together. Erat had three assists in that Oct. 19 game against Columbus, but the trio struggled thereafter.
Erat had a pair of assists in two games while playing on the team’s top line during Alex Ovechkin’s two-game absence from the lineup earlier this month, but he was unable to produce a point while playing the better part of six games with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom upon the Caps’ captain’s return to the lineup.
Oates moved Erat to the middle of a line with Laich and Brouwer on Friday against Montreal, and the veteran winger was a healthy scratch for Saturday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
There will be teams out there with interest in a player such as Erat, who has a proven track record as a productive, top-six NHL forward (eight straight seasons with 49 or more points prior to last season) and who carries a $4.5 million salary cap hit for the rest of this season and next.
Erat has a no movement clause – the same one that required him to give Poile a list of teams he could be traded to several months ago – but McPhee doesn’t anticipate that the clause will cause any trouble as far as making a deal.
“Lots of flexibility,” said McPhee, specifically addressing the existence of the no-movement clause. “He’s been really good about that. He’s been really flexible. We’ve talked about it. He’s been really accommodating. There are no issues there.”
One factor that could make Erat somewhat attractive is his salary. He is playing out the last two seasons of a seven-year contract that was front-loaded, salary-wise. Although Erat’s cap hit is $4.5 million this season, his actual salary is $3.75 million this season and just $2.25 million in 2014-15, the final season of the pact.
“I’ve been talking to some teams,” said McPhee. “We’ll see where it goes.”
Players – including Peter Bondra – have asked for and later rescinded trade requests, having had a change of heart. That doesn’t appear likely in this case, as Erat seems to have made up his mind about wanting out of Washington.
“It’s the way it goes,” Erat declared. “It’s time for me to go. They need players here who can play here, but for me it’s time to move on.”
“We’ve been trying to find the right chemistry,” noted McPhee. “[Erat] doesn’t feel like that chemistry is there. But sometimes it takes a little while. I’ve mentioned a number of times over the years, it’s an elusive thing trying to find the right chemistry with certain people and see who works best on certain lines.
“It’s been a little difficult this year; we haven’t had a lot of injuries up front. We’ve lost two man-games. It’s been hard to get everyone the ice time they’d like to have, whether it’s Jay Beagle or Eric Fehr or Marty or others. That’s just the way it is this year, so far.”
Beagle, who played in all 48 games for Washington last season, has been a healthy scratch for more than a month now, and he has skated in just five of the Capitals’ first 24 games. Fehr, who was scratched just three times last season, was a healthy scratch in nine straight games before getting back into the lineup on Saturday in Toronto.
“I’ve been aware of this for a little while,” said McPhee. “Marty doesn’t feel like he fits in here. We’ve always told our players – it’s been our policy for 15 years or so – that if you don’t feel like you fit in, if you feel like it would be better for your career to be someplace else, let us know and we’ll try to accommodate you.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve done this and it won’t be the last. He doesn’t, for whatever reason, feel like he fits in here, so we’ll try to accommodate him.”