George McPhee watched as his Washington Capitals climbed to within two points of first place in the Southeast Division but all along figured he wanted to add another top-six forward. No matter the recent results, the general manager made one thing clear: “We weren’t going to be sellers.”
That’s why he didn’t trade impending free agent center Mike Ribeiro or gritty forward Matt Hendricks. And that’s why the Caps traded highly touted prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for top-line winger Martin Erat just before Wednesday’s trade deadline.
On the precipice of the playoff picture, McPhee didn’t raise the white flag on the 2013 season. Instead he did the opposite, mortgaging a piece of the future for a 31-year-old who could help the Caps right away.
“You’re here to win; we’ve been in that mode for a while,” McPhee said. “This is six years of trying to win a Cup. We had our rebuild phase. We sort of rebuilt things on the fly here, but we’d like to continue to make the playoffs while we’re doing it.”
Playoffs or bust now and in the near future is how McPhee approached this move. In the 18-year-old Forsberg, the Caps gave up their second-best prospect and top pick in last year’s draft.
“With respect to giving up young players, you’ve got to be careful doing that,” McPhee said. “But we’ve drafted well enough that we can do it.”
It was done with eyes on the final 12 games of the regular season, the upcoming playoffs and the next two years, as Erat has two seasons left on his contract at a $4.5 million annual cap hit.
Adding Erat, who was tied for the Nashville lead with 21 points, beefs up the Caps’ forward ranks at a time when they’re clicking.
“The players have been playing really well,” McPhee said. “I think we’ve proven that when we’re healthy we’re pretty good. I just tried to make them a little bit better.”
That’s what these players wanted. After going 5-1-1 in their past seven, the Caps wanted to show this group was good enough to make a run in the playoffs.
But they had no idea how McPhee would approach the deadline.
“I don’t know what the mindset is for a guy like him when you’re kind of right on the bubble of making it,” defenseman Karl Alzner said earlier Wednesday afternoon. “Do you go all-in or do you back off? I don’t know how you look at that. For me, I hope to go all-in because I don’t ever want to write off a season or anything like that.”
Right wing Troy Brouwer said within the locker room that “our only priority is this year, right now, and making the playoffs.”
McPhee did nothing to dispel that notion, that the expectations for this team did not dip after a 2-8-1 start and struggles that had them in the basement of the Eastern Conference. It’s about getting into the playoffs.
In that vein, McPhee said he never considered trading Ribeiro or Hendricks, neither of whom signed contract extensions before Wednesday’s deadline passed. Dumping them would have sent the wrong message to the rest of the players.
“They’ve played well for us this year and we have lots of time to talk,” McPhee said. “We’ll see what the future brings. I just didn’t think it would be the right thing to do for our team or our fan base.”
Ribeiro was confident well before 3 p.m. that he wasn’t getting traded but also knew he wasn’t signing a deal immediately. The 33-year-old will worry about the contract later and concentrate now on being one of the Caps’ top offensive weapons.
“I think we have a good thing going here: close to our division [lead], close to making the playoffs,” Ribeiro said.
Brouwer said he believed this group was better than last year’s team, which made it to Game 7 of the conference semifinals against the New York Rangers. Having Ribeiro around has a lot to do with that.
“He’s a very, very important piece of this team right now,” Brouwer said. “With him not being moved, guys know that we have that second-line center that adds another element of dangerous ability to put the puck in the net and be a solid two-way player behind [Nicklas Backstrom]. He’s been phenomenal for us all year long.”
McPhee’s hope is that Erat will be able to step in and contribute in a top-six role right away. Erat had to waive a no-movement clause to come to Washington, and it’s possible he slides onto the top line at left wing opposite Alex Ovechkin.
“The nice thing is we’re getting healthy and we have some options,” McPhee said. “We like the player a lot. He’s a real good veteran player, terrific speed, good sense, plays the game right.”
Erat has recorded at least 49 points in the past eight seasons, including a career-high 58 last year. And his desire to win now fits well with the Caps’.
“For me, I was getting older,” Erat said. “I don’t have seven, eight years to wait for another chance.”
With Erat, the Caps have parts of three seasons, with Backstrom and Ovechkin each still in their prime, to get the job done. But of course it came with McPhee gambling the future for a better chance in the present.
“You’re playing on your instincts and experiences as a manager,” he said. “If I do this, does it make us better now, does it make us better in the future?”