George McPhee isn’t a true wheeler-dealer like Glen Sather, his New York Rangers counterpart. Unlike the flamboyant Sather, who won four Stanley Cups as coach of Edmonton’s high-scoring teams in the 1980s, the Caps’ general manager is a close-to-the-vest, befitting a man who enrolled in law school as soon as his playing days were done.
McPhee’s trade with Nashville for winger Martin Erat just before Wednesday’s trade deadline might not seem that big a deal as, say, the Rangers’ trade of underachieving three-time 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik, but could prove to be quite consequential for Washington.
The 31-year-old Erat, who had a trio of 20-goal seasons for the Predators, is not a flashy scorer like Gaborik, but he’s expected to be plugged in alongside two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin and the sweet-passing Nicklas Backstrom on Washington’s top line. The lefthanded Czech will play left wing although he was a usually right wing in Nashville where he was also considered a team leader.
“We wanted a top six forward,” explained McPhee, who said that acquiring Erat’s $4.5 million salary for 2013-14 won’t prevent the Caps from trying to re-sign second-line center Mike Ribeiro before he becomes a free agent in June. “We’ve got a lot of bodies [on right wing, led by Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer]. We wanted to bolster the left side and we did. We’re delighted to get Martin Erat. [He has] great speed. He plays the game right. We think he’s a real good fit for us. It’s not a rental. He’s going to be with us for a while.”
Washington was only two points behind Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg and three behind the New York Islanders for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot when McPhee swung the trade with Nashville GM David Poile, his Caps predecessor. His team’s recent 5-1-1 stretch and talks with his players helped convince McPhee to be a buyer not a seller at the deadline.
“I wanted to help this team now,” said McPhee, who surrendered winger Filip Forsberg, his highly skilled top choice in last year’s draft, to obtain Erat and gritty 21-year-old minor league forward Michael Latta. “The expectations are no different than what they were at the start of the season … to be a playoff team.”
McPhee’s recent history of deadline deals is iffy. Adding Cup champion Jason Arnott in 2011 and defenseman Dennis Wideman didn’t get Washington past the second round despite an Eastern Conference-best 107 points. Bringing in Scott Walker, Joe Corvo, Milan Jurcina and Eric Belanger didn’t prevent a first-round upset in 2010. However, trading for goalie Cristobal Huet, Hall of Fame center Sergei Fedorov and feisty forward Matt Cooke helped the Caps snap a three-year postseason drought in 2008 and win a series in 2009 for the first time since 1998. And none of the players, prospects or draft choices that McPhee dealt to acquire those men has amounted to much yet.
Erat waived his no-trade clause to leave the rebuilding Predators after 11 seasons -– and just two postseason series victories — in order to have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
“I’m getting older and I don’t have seven, eight years to wait for another chance,” said Erat, who was sold on Washington by his buddy Roman Hamrlik, a Caps defenseman last season and the start of this one. “I really don’t care if I play right or left, or first or third line. I just want to win. Just make the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or eighth. You start from zero-zero in the playoffs.”
Los Angeles proved that last spring by winning the Cup despite being the Western Conference’s eighth seed. So Erat isn’t worried that Washington hasn’t advanced beyond the second round since its 1998 run to the finals. He knows the Caps aren’t rebuilding while the Predators are even though they’re just a point out of the West’s last playoff spot.
“It’s hard to leave the city when you’ve been here for so long, but I’m so excited for the opportunity and to play for the Stanley Cup,” he said.
Now the Caps just have to earn that opportunity over the final quarter of the season, 12 games starting tonight against the visiting Islanders, against whom they’re 0-2 this year and who are now tied with New Jersey and the New York Rangers for the East’s last chance to play for the Cup.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin