Martin Erat had a good thing going in Nashville. The Predators made the playoffs seven of the past eight years, cultivating something of a model franchise in a nontraditional hockey market.
Three straight trips to the playoffs heading into this season did not generate enough momentum to stave off the loss of defenseman Ryan Suter and some mixed feelings about the Predators needing an offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers to keep Shea Weber around long-term.
A year after the Predators loaded up to take a shot at the Stanley Cup, being on the edge of the playoff picture wasn’t enough to keep Erat satisfied. He asked for a trade and got one to the Washington Capitals before Wednesday’s deadline.
“As a hockey player, [you’re] never going to get younger. You want to have a chance to play for a Stanley Cup every single year,” Erat said Thursday. “It was their choice. They [tried] to get younger, and that’s what happened there. For me, I want to play for a Stanley Cup, and that was my choice.”
Trading Erat didn’t come easy to Nashville general manager David Poile. Built on defense and goaltending, his team didn’t have a whole lot of offensive talent, and the 31-year-old had been at least tied for Predators’ lead in scoring the past three seasons.
“It’s really disappointing,” Poile said Wednesday in Nashville. “It’s never good to hear that somebody doesn’t want to play for you anymore; you can’t sugarcoat that. That means they don’t believe in where you’re going.”
Erat helped the Predators get to the playoffs with eight consecutive seasons of at least 49 points. In the process, he built a reputation among teammates as not just an all-around performer but someone to resemble in all facets.
“He kept about his business, he worked hard, he showed up every day, did the little things right, got pucks in deep, was solid defensively, cares about the game,” ex-Predators and current Caps defenseman Jack Hillen said. “He just led by example.”
That’s part of why, when Washington general manager George McPhee asked Joel Ward about Erat before acquiring him, the right wing vouched for his former teammate. McPhee and his scouts were familiar with the winger’s game, so Ward relayed what he knew from inside the locker room.
“I got along playing with Marty. I liked him a lot as a teammate and what he brings,” Ward said. “I know he’s a hardworking guy, which is great, and he’s consistent, too. He’s put up points the last quite a few years in Nashville and you know they say on paper he’s not one of the big names or that talented, but he’s still found a way to make plays.”
Erat had four goals and 17 assists in 36 games for the Predators this season, and although that tied for the team lead, Poile said he was sure the Czech native would shoulder some of the responsibility for where Nashville found itself this season.
But Erat still asked for a trade without causing much of a scene.
“I don’t know the conversations he had with David Poile, but knowing David I’m sure that it was very professional,” Caps coach Adam Oates said.
The former Predators in the Washington locker room didn’t want to speak for Erat, but as veteran players it’s easy to understand the frustration.
“When you lose guys like Suter, it’s very tough,” Ward said. “They still got [goaltender Pekka Rinne] on the back end and [Weber] there. I think they had some injuries where they had a few call-ups, too, which has been unfortunate for him too. It’s all part of the game. It’s unfortunate. It can be frustrating at times.”
Going into Thursday night, the Predators were one point back of the final playoff spot in a crowded Western Conference hunt, and one of Erat’s former teammates didn’t take too kindly to his wanting out.
“We want guys here that want to play and want to be a part of this team, want to win, and that wasn’t the case with Marty,” center Mike Fisher told The Tennessean.
Barring a run that would make the Los Angeles Kings’ improbable 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs look expected, the Predators aren’t a serious contender. So Erat submitted a list of 10 teams he would accept a trade to, and the Caps were on it.
Erat spoke to New York Rangers defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who had good things to say about the organization despite some issues he had during his time with the Caps. When asked if he thought the Caps could win the Cup, Erat said simply: “Yes.”
Erat then cited “everything” as his reason.
“They’ve got the players who can decide the games; they’ve got young, good goaltenders,” Erat said. “They’ve got the defense [that] can compete with anybody in the league.”
In getting Erat, McPhee believes he gave this team a better chance at winning this spring and in the next two years. The price of elite prospect Filip Forsberg was high, and the front office did not trade him without much consideration.
“We have a real good group of pro scouts and amateur scouts and you sift through it and you ruminate over it at night and then you come back in, and you talk about it some more,” McPhee said. “And the vote was unanimous to do it.”
“Marty was good for us, but he didn’t want to be here any longer,” Poile said. “And you have to move on.”
Erat already has done so, and now that his road has led him to Washington, the Caps are hoping to benefit from his presence.
“I know by Marty’s character and by his work ethic, he wants to win every night,” Ward said. “The circumstances there, I guess things weren’t developing as what he thought it would be in the future, per se. I think this gives him a good shot of coming here and helping out and knowing that we have a good opportunity of winning games.”