- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

George McPhee, the Capitals’ longtime general manager, used the word “guts” when discussing his team’s trade-deadline deal that sent prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville organization for veteran Martin Erat and prospect Michael Latta.

Yes, you do expect a little bigger return when you deal away someone considered among your best prospects. You don’t expect your first responses to be, “Who?” and “What?”

So we’ll stipulate the guts part. McPhee has that.

Brains? We’ll let you know.

He’s either a genius who has been able to oversell or a schlub who got taken in a moment of delusion and mad desire to finally see his team make a real, live run at the Stanley Cup. We may know the answer in a couple of weeks. We may not know for a few years.

In Erat, the Caps are getting a 31-year-old who has played with Nashville for his entire NHL career. Judging from his stats, he looks to be a very good but not great player. If Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro are your “A” level offensive players, slot Erat in at the top of the next level along with the likes of Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera (at least the one we used to know) and maybe Marcus Johansson.

He’s had at least 49 points and 16 goals every year since 2003-04. He only has four goals this year, though it is likely an aberration rather than a sign of a drop-off. He’s no longer young, but he has some years left.

He’s a fine addition and may help. But is he really a tremendous upgrade over what’s already there? Wouldn’t a tough-as-nails defensive defenseman have been a better addition?

And, most important, does anyone truly feel the Capitals are more of a Stanley Cup threat with Erat than without? Just making the playoffs is a challenge, though the Caps were closing in on the lead in the weak Southeast even before the move. Once in, does anyone with an objective mind see this team getting by Boston again, much less Pittsburgh?

If you’re going to give up maybe your best prospect, get someone who moves the needle, someone who makes the hockey world sit up and say, “Uh oh, the Caps mean business.” Even if you have to throw in a couple of lesser prospects, like the Nationals did when they acquired Gio Gonzalez.

But therein lies the rub. How good of a prospect did the Caps give up?

Forsberg was taken 11th overall in last year’s draft. The website Hockey’s Future updated pretty quickly after the trade and already lists Forsberg as Nashville’s top prospect based on the scoring system it uses. He’s given an 8.0 on their 10-point rating scale, which the site says means “first-line forward/No. 2 defenseman/no. 1 goaltender — players with definite skill that might be just a cut below elite status, but still possessing All-Star potential.”

That’s pretty good, and too big a price to pay for Erat.

If they’re right.

Pierre LeBrun, a veteran and well-respected hockey reporter who now writes for ESPN.com, says the trade could turn into one of those win-win deals.

“And yes, perhaps GM George McPhee could have gotten more had he waited until the summer to shop Forsberg fully to the league,” he writes. “You see, I believe the Caps were going to trade Forsberg at some point no matter what, internally souring on the prospect, a player they no longer viewed as a top center in the making.”

LeBrun said there were concerns about Forsberg’s speed. He wrote he’s not so sure this is a bad trade.

Erat is one of those players that if he were playing in a bigger market all these years would be more of a brand name,” he wrote. “Fact is, the Preds just traded their top offensive forward to Washington. And unlike Jarome Iginla or Jaromir Jagr, Erat is not a rental player. He has two more years on his deal ($4.5 million cap hit). The Caps just got a top-six forward for at least two-plus years. Those don’t grow on trees. Now, he has to perform, obviously. If he does, we may look back on this deal as not being quite as terrible for Washington as everyone is making it out to be.”

Latta, the prospect coming over with Erat, doesn’t rank far behind Forsberg with Hockey’s Future. He’s given a 7.0 (second-line forward/No. 3-4 defenseman/journeyman No. 1 goaltender), one of only five Caps prospects it ranks at that level or higher.

But Latta is just a prospect at this point. Erat is the centerpiece. McPhee said it was unanimous among his scouts to give up Forsberg. He thinks the system is deep enough. He thinks the Caps, having regained their health, took another step forward with Erat.

“I think we’ve proven that when we’re healthy, we’re pretty good,” McPhee told reporters soon after the trade was announced. “I just tried to make them a little better today.”

We’ll know soon enough if it works. What we may not know for a while is if it was worth it.