When Martin Erat took his trade request public this week, he explained, “they just give me straight signal like I don’t fit here.” He’s right. Nearly eight months and 36 games, regular season and playoffs, since the Capitals traded to acquire him from the Nashville Predators, they still don’t know exactly how he works within their lineup.
Nearly every time Coach Adam Oates has been posed with a question about the veteran winger this season, regardless of the specifics, he’s mentioned the difficulty in maximizing the forwards on the roster simultaneously when everyone is healthy.
“Still feel we have that chemistry issue,” Oates said before Saturday’s game in Toronto, where Erat was a healthy scratch. “That’s not his fault, but he’s also part of it. We have a logjam at certain positions.”
When General Manager George McPhee made the out-of-character move to trade the Capitals’ second-best prospect to acquire Erat and then-AHL prospect Michael Latta, the team had an immediate need for a top-six forward. Uncertainty surrounded Brooks Laich’s health with his lingering groin problem, and McPhee didn’t want to send the Capitals charging into the postseason without enough players capable of filling the top half of the lineup.
McPhee has taken plenty of heat over the years for being too conservative, for not making big, splashy moves. He didn’t play it safe last year. Given Washington’s glut of right-handed forwards and the inability to predict the exact trajectory of any prospect including Filip Forsberg, McPhee made the trade to help that playoff-bound squad.
It’s an understandable situation in which to take a calculated risk. Considering it was for a player who had two years remaining on his contract at the time of the deal, the implication was that Washington saw him as a long-term part of the organization rather than a stop-gap.
“Things change. Over the summer we signed [Mikhail] Grabovski, and Brooks is healthy,” McPhee said Monday. “We didn’t know at the end of the year whether Brooks would be back this year.”
McPhee’s comment illustrates the level of concern there was about Laich’s status last year, so perhaps they fully expected Erat to fill that vacancy for longer than a handful of games at the end of a season. When training camp opened this fall and Washington had an abundance of forwards — including a healthy Laich — nothing accommodated for the changing circumstances.
Laich started as second-line left wing, where Oates often says he prefers to play the versatile forward and where Erat suited up last year. Even when Laich sat out with a hip-flexor injury in the presason, Erat was placed alongside a player who was traded before the season opener (Mathieu Perreault) and became more of a spare part.
“Brooksie is back, so we were having a chemistry issue, we were having lots of issues,” Oates said Monday. “Chemistry’s a very elusive thing.”
Erat bounced around the lineup, playing seven games on the fourth line with the lowest ice time of his career to open the season, which prompted his initial trade request. He later spent five games on the first line and 11 on the second, but even when he was in the top six, there didn’t seem to be enough cohesion with his linemates.
No matter the line, though, Erat was no longer relied on for special teams time the way he was in Nashville, where he averaged more than 2 minutes of power-play time with the Predators’ top unit. Oates acknowledged that particular change, along with not being called on as much in all situations, could have affected the veteran’s overall performance.
On Monday, McPhee was asked if Erat’s assessment that he didn’t fit in Washington was correct. He didn’t say no.
“We’ve been trying to find the right chemistry, he doesn’t feel like that chemistry’s there,” McPhee said. “It’s been a little difficult this year we haven’t had a lot of injuries up front, we’ve only lost two man games, so it’s been hard to get everyone the ice time they’d like to have.”