What to do with Martin Erat

October 18, 2013

(AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Last spring, the Washington Capitals traded away their second-best prospect to acquire Martin Erat, a veteran winger with experience handling significant minutes and strong defensive instincts, to bolster the top-six forward depth.

Two weeks and seven games into this season, though, Erat is lodged on the fourth line, seeing the lowest ice time of his career in what is an increasingly untenable situation.

Erat, 32, skated a season-low 6 minutes 20 seconds against New York in Wednesday’s loss but hasn’t played more than 11:50 in any single game this season.

It’s the most diminished role he’s ever held during his 12-year NHL career, and Erat — who has recorded 50-point seasons five times in his career, most recently in 2011-12 — has made it clear he’s not thrilled with the situation.“I have no idea what’s going on,” Erat said. “I’m just trying to stay positive and hope this is just a bump in the road and see how it goes.

“It’s not my position to be in this. I’m not 21 years old waiting for somebody to get hurt or somebody to play bad. It’s not in my system,” Erat said. “In my 12 years I’ve never played less than 10 minutes. It’s kind of new for me. I have to stay in shape in case something happens, but we’ll see what’s going to happen.“

Each time he’s been asked about Erat’s ice time, Coach Adam Oates cites the difficulty in finding playing time for all of Washington’s forwards. There’s been trouble in determining where Erat fits now that Brooks Laich, who was injured last year at the trade deadline, is healthy.

But is leaving Erat on the fourth line a way to determine if he can bring the type of production and defensive balance to a line that was the object of trading for him in the first place?

The Capitals aren’t off to a strong start. They sit 2-5-0 and are looking for consistency, both offensively and defensively, from the majority of the lineup. Oates hasn’t changed his forward lines, with the exception of swapping the fourth-line center. After Washington’s loss to the Rangers, changes could be on the way, and it might be time to figure out whether Erat can be of better use.

Moving Erat up the lineup wouldn’t be a cure-all for the Capitals’ struggles, but at least then they’d know what they have.

Erat counts $4.5 million against the salary cap this season and next. If there really isn’t anything to be gained from his presence on the roster, one would think it would be easier to trade him for something of consequence if he’s seeing more than an average of 8:46 a night.

Erat’s agent, Michael Deutsch, declined to comment on the situation. But it’s not hard to see that the Capitals need to make a decision soon about Erat’s future.

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