Saturday afternoon, Washington Capitals fans will finally get a chance to see Filip Forsberg play a game on Verizon Center ice. But he’ll be wearing a Nashville Predators uniform; Forsberg was dealt away two years ago in may have been the worst trade by a Washington sports franchise in almost a half-century.
The Caps traded Forsberg, their top prospect and one of the top prospects in hockey, to the Preds for 31-year-old Martin Erat and young center Michael Latta at the 2013 trade deadline. Erat, of course, is no longer with the Caps — in 62 games with the team, he scored two goals (one an empty-netter), was misused by then-Coach Adam Oates, requested a trade and was dealt at the 2014 trade deadline for a player who has spent almost the entire year in Hershey. Latta is a solid, bottom-six center who could play for the Caps for a long time, but is unlikely to make any all-star teams. Forsberg, meanwhile, is a leading contender for NHL rookie of the year with 22 goals — more than anyone on the Caps not named Alex Ovechkin. He is among the top 10 NHL forwards in Fenwick percentage, essentially a measure of shot-attempt generation while players are on the ice. And he hasn’t even turned 21 yet.
In giving up a top prospect for an older player, the Caps made the kind of “adding the final piece” trade that a championship contender makes. The problem was that the Caps weren’t anyone’s idea of a championship contender when the trade was made — at the time they were 17-17-2 and two points out of a playoff spot with two games in hand. And it’s a trade that Caps fans are constantly reminded of; it seems that every hockey writer who watches Forsberg play at some point writes something along the lines of “I can’t believe the Caps traded this guy for Martin Erat.”
I can't believe the Predators got Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat
— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) November 28, 2014
If Forsberg continues to improve, the trade will likely only get worse. But does it rise to the level of historically bad when it comes to the nation’s capital?
It may not top what has become known in Washington sports lore as the worst trade in the history of the city — the 1970 deal the Senators pulled off to acquire Tigers hurler Denny McLain, who had won 31 games and the Cy Young in 1968 and had another stellar season in 1969. The next year, McLain was suspended three times for transgressions including gambling, and didn’t pitch well when he was on the field. But the Senators’ owner, Bob Short, loved McLain, so he traded the team’s starting shortstop and third baseman — Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez — as well as Joe Coleman, a pitcher who would go on to win 62 games over the next three seasons in a Tigers uniform, for McLain and three other players. McLain went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA in 1971, feuded with manager Ted Williams and was traded in the offseason, while the Senators left for Texas.
Since then, there seem to be only three other D.C. sports trades that could be in the discussion with the Forsberg debacle, but all have some kind of mitigating factor that at the very least explains — if not excuses — the transaction.
The Redskins’ 2012 trade of three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the right to draft Robert Griffin III may end up being remembered as a disaster, but who knows how Griffin’s career would have gone had he not blown out his knee at the end of his rookie season?
The worst Caps’ trade in history before 2013 was the June 1992 trade of Dino Ciccarelli for Kevin Miller (who was traded away even faster than Erat, just one month into the 1992-93 season). But though the Caps wouldn’t admit it at the time, that trade wasn’t about hockey — the team didn’t want to give Ciccarelli a salary increase (and may have wanted to get rid of the only player still left from the infamous Georgetown limo incident).
And of course, there’s the 1998 Wizards trade of Chris Webber to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. Once again, though, this trade was about more than just putting the best team on the floor — owner Abe Pollin was upset with a series of off-court transgressions by Webber, including charges (of which he was later cleared) of marijuana possession and resisting arrest after a traffic stop.
The Forsberg deal, though, was solely about hockey. Then-GM George McPhee said that he had all of his scouts vote on whether to trade Forsberg and they were unanimous in saying yes. While McPhee lost his job a year later, pretty much everyone else who voted “yes” is still involved with the team — with then-director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney having since been promoted to assistant general manager, and then-assistant GM Brian MacLellan becoming the team’s general manager. Neither has since explained publicly what it was about Forsberg that turned them off — one anonymously sourced media report said it was Forsberg’s lack of “foot speed” — although it was at least admirable that earlier this year, MacLellan admitted the trade was a mistake.
“Would I like to do a do-over? Yeah, sure,” MacLellan said.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be an option.