The Capitals may have kicked off a new season Tuesday, but Martin Erat still isn’t exactly sure where he fits in the team’s lineup.
Acquired at the trade deadline last year to provide top-six depth on the wing, Erat, 32, played on the fourth line against the Blackhawks in the season opener and skated only 9:01 in the contest. For an 11-year NHL veteran with 733 games of experience and 484 career points, that role wasn’t something he expected.
“It’s very frustrating. I don’t know what to think about it. It’s hard, I have no idea what’s happening,” Erat said following practice Wednesday. “If you played 11 years in the league, I don’t think you lose your position in three or four games in the preseason. I don’t know.”
Coach Adam Oates has acknowledged the challenge of finding minutes for all of the forwards in the mix and that the lines are still a bit of a work in progress. More telling, though, is that Oates said he is still trying to find the right place for Erat.
“Last year when we made the trade, Brooksie was hurt, and Brooksie’s healthy right now,” Oates said. “I hope Brooksie plays another 300 in a row, but there’s still a feeling of, ‘I hope he’s good.’ So we’re still trying to figure out chemistry based on [Laich’s health], and that affects decisions.”
Erat, a left-handed shot, was accustomed to top-six minutes as a right wing during his time in Nashville. When Erat arrived in Washington, though, Oates moved him to his strong side to play left wing. After a knee and elbow injury limited his time in the lineup last spring, Erat was looking forward to finally settling in with his new team this fall.
Then during training camp and the preseason, Erat saw time at center. He played two games in the middle, and it’s still uncertain whether he might see more time there in the future. When he wasn’t skating at center Erat was working on a line with Mathieu Perreault, who has since been traded to the Anaheim Ducks.
“I thought this training camp is going to be great for me because I’m going to get used to playing on the left wing and get used to the system and everything,” Erat said. “But obviously it takes the focus away when you play in the middle and after you have no idea who you’re going to play with. It’s kind of hard to find that chemistry.”
Oates said Wednesday he wasn’t able to distribute ice time the way he would have liked in the season opener because of the abundance of special-teams play. He doesn’t want players to read too much into a single contest, but knows he has to help them in that process.
“That’s why you’ve got to communicate with him,” Oates said when asked if he was wary of Erat reading into the contest. “We have to touch base and things have to be explained so guys don’t start wondering.”
At this stage, Erat is looking for some form of clarity.
“I’m going to do what’s best for the team,” Erat said. “Like I’m not going to decide I need to go and scream somewhere. It’s between me and him, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Practice note: The Caps held an optional skate Wednesday morning at KCI, but it was a well-attended workout. Only Alex Ovechkin, Mikhail Grabovski and Brooks Laich elected not to take to the ice. Oates said Laich made it through the season opener well and that it was simply a day off from skating for him.