Once upon a time, Capitals General Manager George McPhee was viewed, rightly I think, as cautious and shrewd each spring around trade deadline time. Never one to radically revamp his roster with wheeling and dealing then, McPhee in fact over the years has widely earned a reputation for perhaps being overly cautious, a bit too much of a deadline fence-sitter relative to his manager peers — particularly the elite ones.
A little before happy hour Wednesday George McPhee took a sledgehammer to that characterization, and in the process he may well have mortgaged a promising future for his hockey club.
There are tiers to NHL prospects, but consensus on Filip Forsberg was clear: He’s a bluechipper. Addressing the media Wednesday evening, McPhee didn’t dispute one reporter’s contention that Forsberg represented “a big part” of the Capitals’ future. And from every reasonable vantage since his drafting last June, how couldn’t he had been so regarded? He was considered a bit of a steal by the Caps at no. 11 in the first round, he earned the captaincy for his hockey power nation at this year’s World Juniors, and he was even pointed to by the team owner recently as a cornerstone prospect. So in moving a bluechip prospect for Martin Erat, a 31-year-old wing whose minutes-eating production in Nashville this season allowed him — in 11 more games — to equal the goals production of Wojtek Wolski in Washington, McPhee has invited the interpretation that it’s win now — and take an enormous risk in trying to do so — for a team that in this truncated season has veered little from 14th to 11th in the Eastern conference.
On Twitter, I’m an interloper, generally maintaining what I believe is a healthy distance from the clutter-chatter, but near 5:00 yesterday it was terribly telling to read the breaking news coverage from pro hockey’s most respected and popular personalities there. I paraphrase and aggregate the shocked tweets: Word that it’s Forsberg on Washington’s end, and Erat from Nashville. But there must be more coming from Poile.
There was — an AHL body.
It’s astounding, but apparently it is George McPhee’s actual thinking these days: He believes the Caps’ roster was merely one forward — and not a star forward at that — away from contending.
Had the Caps yesterday afternoon been lodged in 5th or 6th in the East, looking reasonably impressive against top-flight, in-conference competition in the process, and had they just suffered a devastating injury to a forward in their top 6, I could have somewhat understood the move McPhee made yesterday. But the reality is something quite the opposite: the Caps have won a good bit of late — against conference bottom-feeders — and all season long they’ve been outclassed when matched up against their much-betters. They aren’t one player away from looking strong against the league’s best, they’re at least three difference-making players away. Filip Forsberg and Evgeny Kuznetsov were widely regarded as two players who could significantly address the current roster’s shortcomings, and reasonably soon. And it bears mentioning: it’s not as if the Caps had stockpiled an embarrassment of bluechip riches in the development pipeline; there was a big dropoff in can’t-miss, impact projection after those two European studs. Now they have one.
This morning I think it’s especially interesting to raise a comparison with that other team in town just starting its season — the World Series favorite Nats. Remember just a couple of years back, when local media was fond of alluding to the blueprint for durable contention newly adopted by the Nats — in emulation of the city’s pro hockey team? Draft sagely, develop patiently, forsake the quick fix. I don’t think I was the only hockey fan in town who in Forsberg and Kusnetsov saw a parallel with the Nats’ Strasburg and Harper. Quick reader poll: Who between those teams do you think is more likely to reach the Promised Land first, even though the Caps had a good 5-year head start with the blueprint? Also, who’s more likely to fall flat in failure? Lastly this morning, who do you think ought to be emulating who in roster assembly?
More disturbing context for yesterday’s head-scratching deal: The window on the Capitals’ legitimate Cup contention with their current core either has or has not closed. A fair number of reasonable and reputable league watchers have publicly hedged bets that in fact it has closed. The transition period to a refreshed, rejiggered/reconfigured roster and encouraging period of contention, I’ve been writing in this space for about a year, could be reasonably modest: Basically, had Capitals’ management bit the bullet on an aberration season in ’12-13, and landed an impact difference-maker up top in a top-heavy entry draft in June, hockey here could have been headline-grabbing again in short order. More importantly, that Capitals club would be built in important ways its pretender predecessors weren’t.
More concern: Had yesterday’s deal been carried off with say Columbus, or Florida, or the Isles — the easily hood-winked, you might call them — I’d feel a good deal more comfortable. But David Poile isn’t just a solid GM. He’s a time-tested builder, and particularly a builder of solid foundations in trouble markets. In order for pro hockey to succeed in Nashville, Poile and his scouts have to be right about talent a good deal more reliably than many of their peers. Nashville is a market that can’t retain an abundance of elite talent like say the Caps or Rags or Pens can. They have to draft wisely, develop talent durably, get lucky in rounds hardly anyone does, and sagely manage layers of talent development, knowing that free agency will deplete them almost annually. So the Preds pluck the likes of Pekka Rinne (8th round), Anders Lindback (7th round), Martin Erat (7th round), and Patric Hornqvist (last pick overall in his draft year). It isn’t enough for the Predators to know North American hockey prospect talent well; they have to uncover gems overseas, and their track record with that is rather stellar. I’m confident that Poile and his scouts had a good read on Filip Forsberg last June, and that nearly a year later they’re equally well informed about him.
This organizational comparison of mine isn’t failsafe or foolproof, but for me it is a bit disquieting. It was both amusing and annoying for me to listen to George McPhee tell the media last night that “We’ve drafted well enough that we could do [the trade].” Sage drafting and player development doesn’t lead to staffing your top six with 600k-a-year castoffs, or never-properly-developed Marcus Johansson.
George McPhee has done some good and wise things in his tenure here, and he’s authored some serious WTFs. What he hasn’t earned in 16 years on the job is any right to gloat.
Let’s get to round three one spring this century and perhaps then think about a little self congratulations.
Martin Erat — he of 4 goals in 36 games this season, and fully three years removed from scoring 20 goals in a campaign — is a setup guy, not a lamp lighter. The Caps already have those (Ribeiro, Backstrom). He’ll cost the Caps $4.5 million each of the next two seasons — all but eliminating any reasonable possibility that the club can resign Ribeiro. Then where are they come summer? Well, where they were 24 hours ago — but minus a bluechip prospect. And weak again down the middle. God help this manager if his squad finishes 9th in three weeks’ time.
Most of all yesterday’s trade reminded me of what the Washington hockey club under this manager represents relative to our elite peers. Yesterday’s was a trade that Lou Lamoreillo, Ray Shero, Stan Bowman — you know, the managers of clubs who win a lot and win often when it matters — never make, ever. Riverboat gambling a fair bit of the future for a high-risk, fast fix. It was a trade made from a position of weakness, out on a wing and a prayer. This league’s winners know better.