A year ago when the NHL’s trade deadline passed, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile was treated like a triumphant hero, the winner of the league’s annual sweepstakes.
He acquired forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. Earlier, he had traded for defenseman Hal Gill and persuaded forward Alex Radulov to return from Russia.
This year, while Poile felt he made a good hockey trade that will bolster the team’s future, he ended up in the unenviable position of being on the defensive, having to explain why one of the club’s most established players had asked to be traded.
What a difference, as they say, a year makes.
The player in question was right wing Martin Erat, 31, who ranks second all-time in franchise history in games, goals, assists and points. Erat, a player the Predators had drafted in the seventh round in 1999 and developed, had a no-movement clause in his contract — which, when he signed it in 2008, was for seven years and $31.5 million — and so Poile could only deal with a number of teams that Erat was willing to go to.
In the end, Poile found a trade partner in the club for which he had served as general manager for years, the Washington Capitals. Along with minor-league center Michael Latta, Poile packaged Erat and received forward Filip Forsberg, 18, a highly touted Swedish prospect.
As with all trades, history will serve as the ultimate judge. Erat was having perhaps his worst season as an NHLer. His minus-7 rating was tied for the second worst on the team; and earlier this season, he went 21 straight games without a goal, the longest of his career.
Still, the optics aren’t great. Erat, after all, held the distinction of being one of the Predators’ two assistant captains. Twice on Wednesday, in meeting with the media, Poile was forced to say he would not “sugarcoat” his disappointment with Erat’s request.
Some tried to bundle Erat’s request with the decision by All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter to sign with Minnesota last July and with captain Shea Weber signing an offer sheet with Philadelphia a few weeks later. (The Predators matched the offer sheet and retained Weber.)
In one respect, it seems that three of the Predators’ most important players from last season (fifth overall in regular-season points, a playoff series victory over the Red Wings) wanted out of Nashville.
Not so, Poile said. This, he said, is the business side of pro sports. He said it was no different than some of the moves that NFL or MLB teams are forced to make. He seemed to say this is what happens when a franchise matures and develops players into some of its sport’s elite.
“We’ve been somewhat sheltered,” he said. “This is the big leagues.”
Poile’s each of the above situations as different: Suter wanted to sign with Minnesota because his wife was from there; Weber used his leverage under the league’s old collective bargaining agreement to score a monster deal; and Erat, for whatever reason, was unhappy.
Sometimes, Poile said, a player needs a change of scenery. It certainly seemed to be that way with Erat, who, after an outburst of eight points in four games — which apparently coincided with his request; perhaps Erat was doing his best to showcase himself — sank back into a lack of productivity. Over the last three games, he went without a point (minus-2 ratio).
In Forsberg, the 11th overall pick in last year’s draft, the Preds are getting a player who holds what Poile said was greater potential than the level Erat currently operates. If that’s true, the Predators will have a find on their hands, especially considering Erat has recorded between 49 and 58 points for each of the previous eight seasons.
“We need to be more dynamic with our forwards, and today we got a dynamic forward,” Poile said.
The Predators are in no rush to get Forsberg to the NHL. Poile said they want to create a development plan for him, which would likely include playing in North America next season.
None of that, Poile said, means the Predators are giving up on making the playoffs. The Predators are 4-1-2 in their last seven games and tied for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. It would be noted that Erat did not have much to do with the team’s 3-2 shootout loss to Chicago on Monday, or Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over Colorado.
While the long-term winners of this swap could take years to learn, the short-term will show itself soon enough. Last year, all that triumphalism ended sourly in the second round of the playoffs, as Kostitsyn and Radulov got themselves suspended for breaking curfew in Phoenix.
Who’s to say this year fate won’t provide an equally counter-intuitive outcome?