(L to R) George McPhee, Filip Forsberg, and Ross Mahoney on Draft Day in 2012
The worst trade in Capitals history. GMGM’s final act. The Martin Erat Bungalo. This is how we got Michael Latta. And “Caps Roomies,” with the ensuing ketchup jokes. No matter what name you give it, the Martin Erat and Michael Latta for Filip Forsberg trade occupies more time than it should in your mind.
Forsberg, drafted by Washington in the first round after trading Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for the pick, stayed with Swedish club Leksands IF for the season. Once he came over, he was projected to be second only to fellow Swede Nickals Backstrom on the depth chart. Even as a teenager, “experts” were giving Forsberg a good chance to be an all-star in the NHL.
Of course, they were right. Forsberg played in the 2015 All-Star Game (as an injury replacement for Evgeni Malkin, but who cares?), scored 26 then 32 goals in his first two seasons, factored into the playoffs, and looks poised to rejoin Backstrom as part of Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey.
Now, Caps fans know where this is going. Forsberg did all this as a member of the Nashville Predators. April 3, 2013 saw Washington trade away their top pick from the 2012 Entry Draft for aging Martin Erat and scrappy Michael Latta. The reasons for such a trade were debated long into next season, and still rage on whenever any of the three names, the Predators, or Sweden is brought up in Caps circles.
I will attempt to do something few Caps fans would dare try: I will defend then-general manager George McPhee’s decision to trade Filip Forsberg.
2012 was a turbulent year for the NHL. Between the Atlanta Thrashers restarting play in Winnipeg while still in the Southeast Division, an impending lockout after the season, the New York Islanders announcing their move to the Barcalys Center on a 25-year lease, and a radical alingment plan, the last thing anyone wanted to think about was the salary cap. At $70.2 million under the new collective bargaining agreement, GMs needed to get creative with handling their potential break-out stars.
Two years earlier, the Capitals drafted Evgeny Kuznetsov, then a winger for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. To the bewilderment of fans, he signed a two-year extension with Traktor to further delay his NHL debut.
McPhee had a major problem on his hand: the salary cap was not projected to rise by much for many seasons. In his pipeline were two potential star players, both would require huge raises by the time that rookie contract expires. What could he do? There are a few possibilities.
- Keep both players, taking the risk of their impending raise by bearing the fruits of a few good seasons and then releasing them to the open market.
- Or, he could try to keep both long-term, which would have stifled the efforts to sign anyone on defense (Matt Niskanen) or a permanent goaltender (Braden Holtby).
- This was also at a time when Holtby was not a sure investment. That’s part of the reason Michal Neuvirth was signed to a two-year extension and why Jaroslav Halak was brought in to finish out the 2013-14 season.
- Trade one of them and commit to the other for the long-haul. Get something in return: shore up the revolving door at first-line right wing, draft picks, a depth player. Anything.
McPhee took the second option, looking for a trade partner of some kind that would give him a right winger or a fourth-line player. He found that in the Predators, who frequently suffered in losses when Pekka Rinne could not keep the opposition to one goal or less. They had 30-year-old Erat, seeing a major drop in playing time from his three 20-goal season ventures; and Latta, who seemed stuck in the penalty box and not living up to his 89-point 2010-11 season with the Guelph Storm (Ontario Hockey League). Lacking in young scorers, David Poile took McPhee’s deal.
Yes, Erat took until the last game before the Olympic Break in 2014 to score his first 2013-14 goal. It was an empty-net goal, but that is not important. What is important is that he was cheap, then he was sent off to the Phoenix Coyotes for Chris Brown — there were three other guys in that trade, but none of them were very important.
Latta held on and stayed in Washington, carving out a niche for himself as Tom Wilson’s roommate. The duo featured on Epix’s “Road to the Winter Classic 2015” a few times. They also welcomed in Andre Burakovsky when it became clear he was in Washington to stay.
If not for the trade, Forsberg may have scored 20 goals a season in Washington red and not Nashville yellow. He may have been part of last year’s magical run at the President’s Trophy. He may have been the missing piece to the puzzle in that Penguins series. But the question nobody seems comfortable addressing is the most obvious one: how could the team afford it with the current $73 million ceiling?
After last season, Forsberg signed a six-year, $6 million cap hit with Nashville. After they took the PK Subban contract ($9 million), Nashville has the look of a top-heavy team. The Preds look scary on their top-two forward lines and defensive pairings, Rinne is still a solid goalie, but the rest of the roster is… meh.
The Predators will likely contend this year and pray some rising cap hit is taken by Las Vegas in the expansion draft. Maybe Viktor Arvidsson. But let’s say this trade did not happen. What if the Caps held Forsberg and avoided the Erat fiasco? How might the team look right now heading into 2016-17?
Continuing with this thought experiment, we must say choose between the likes of Justin Williams, T.J Oshie, Brooks Orpik (I doubt many of you are sheding tears here), and Matt Niskanen. Holtby is untouched, but that could leave the team with a massive hole on defense, three top centers, maybe the Brooks Laich $4.5 million contract (which further complicates matters), and a deep minor league system. Not every player can stay.
Jay Beagle may not get that extension, what with three centers and Laich on the roster. Maybe the Caps would need to retain some of Laich’s salary to get a deal with any team. Trade rumors would swirl around Burakovsky, since he is clearly due a raise at the end of his rookie contract. Troy Brouwer would need a raise, and he would not get it. Kuznetsov could command a major price on the trade market, and he would need to be traded given the cap hits of Alex Ovechkin ($9.538 million), Backstrom ($6.7 million), and the assumed hit on Forsberg ($6 million).
Is Kuzy a deadline deal, or do you, dear GM, hold on to him in the hopes that he can help toward a victory in the second round? If the former, where might you send him to mitigate the effects of doing well in the playoffs? Arizona? Ottawa?
No, that sounds absurd. Ovechkin might convince Kuznetsov to stay; that would make the cap situation slightly more favorable. Then again, you now have four top-forwards and we haven’t even touched Marcus Johansson yet.
The pocket book may survive Johansson’s arbitration with Forsberg still on his rookie deal, but there is no way to stay under the cap with the raise Johansson is due now. Either deal with the arbitrator’s award again, or let him go elsewhere for more money.
And forget about keeping Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos in Hershey for more conditioning. The holes on defense dictate that the Caps need them — right now. Who knows? Tyler Lewington might need to be called up. As for the holes on the wing? I hope you like Liam O’Brien more than you liked Michael Latta, because he’s coming up, too. You’ll get Riley Barber and, maybe, Jakub Vrana, as compensation.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad lineup. Is it ideal? Well, if the performance of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov in last year’s playoffs was any indication, no, it is not ideal. Experience, however unmeasurable, is still valuable come playoff time.
I understand that this is an unpopular opinion. I understand that you, with your wisdom from the NHL video games, think there was some way to keep both Kuznetsov and Forsberg. The reality, however, dictates that McPhee had a choice to make. He chose to invest in the Russian.
Assuming their 2016-17 contracts (per generalfanager.com), the Capitals would have $69,794,291 in salary, leaving $3,205,709 in cap space, with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Forsberg, Kuznetsov, Johansson, Oshie, Williams, Niskanen, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Holtby, and the rookies. This number assumes Beagle stays, Laich’s contract has 50% retention on the Daniel Winnik trade, the Lars Eller trade does not happen, Orpik is out, and Orlov is still holding out for a better deal. For reference, their current salary cap projection is $69,545,126, a mere $249,165 under the new number.
That may not look like much, but given the nature of the hockey season — injuries, subesequent call-ups, the 10 game slide rule, waivers, etc. — is not desirable wiggle room for any team. If Alzner is not ready by the start of the season, Aaron Ness may need a recall. The same goes for Beagle; if he misses time with another injury, Zach Sill or Travis Boyd will need to fill in. If either of those call-ups play more than 10 games during the season, their cap hit goes toward the season ending total. Should all three reach the 10 game mark, that now adds $1,930,000 to the cap, making the total $71,724,291.
Suppose Orlov re-signs with Washington. Last year, he was on a $2 million cap hit. Has he increased in value to the ranks of Thomas Hickey ($2.2 million, NYI), decreased to Matt Bartkowski ($1.75 million, UFA), or stayed the same. If the answer is increase, that now adds $2.2 million to the books. This new team is now at $73,924,291, or $924,291 over the salary cap. Not as bad as two of the three teams currently over the cap (Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins; Toronto Maple Leafs are $694,084 over), but bad enough to warrant concern.
This does not even touch rookie “bonus payments” for outstanding team- (schedule A) and league-wide (schedule B) performance bonuses. At the end of the season, the bonuses go to the cap hit and may push the team over the limit after the season. The league punishes these teams with “overage” payments: whatever you go over in bonus payments, you must account for in next year’s books. Translation: if the Caps go $1 million over the cap due to bonuses, that money goes to next season’s cap total, meaning the salary cap is actually $1 million less. Better get used to cheering against Madison Bowey to shatter rookie defenseman records, because those overage payments will hurt the next season.
Factoring in Long Term Injured Reserve relief? Forget it. THAT goes beyond my math capabilities. Think of the possibilities LTIR would entail and it might result in headaches.
This is the reality of managing a sports franchise in the Salary Cap Era.
Next time the Predators are on TV or in town, do not, I plead, stare longingly at the #9 in mustard yellow, thinking of what might have been. Do not fantasize over line combinations gone by. Do not, especially, ask for a refund.
Understand that his presence in Tennessee is part of the new NHL: a league whose teams are burdened by the salary cap, but reap the benefits of controlled salaries at the same time. A league where thrift and taking a chance on a low-budget player are rewarded, but splashing out $8 million-a-year for the hottest name on the free agent market is also encouraged. A league where operating on a budget is good if you win, but irresponsible if you lose.
Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, got their wishes. Today’s league looks nothing like the years under Clarence Campbell. The Montreal Canadiens cannot have their dynasty, expansion teams must be competitive, and every team must have at least one star player. Parity riegns over dynasty. Dynasties, like stars who takes the home-town discount, are the exception and not the rule.