Washington Capitals: What If They Never Traded Filip Forsberg

Filip Forsberg (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
Filip Forsberg (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images) /

The Washington Capitals have struggled to win the Stanley Cup, continuing to be booted in the second round. But what if the Capitals had better forward depth, in the shape of Filip Forsberg?

In 2013, the Washington Capitals were in the midst of a lockout-shortened season after a playoff run ended in the second round after seven games against the New York Rangers. The Capitals wanted to get better so that if there comes another game seven, they could maybe win it. George McPhee, then the Caps general manager, had a solution: trade for 31-year-old forward Martin Erat.

On paper, it sounded OK. After all, at the time, Erat had 21 points in 36 games for the Nashville Predators, first place in points on the team. The return to the Predators for him, along with Michael Latta, was 2012 11th overall pick Filip Forsberg.

Fast forward to the present day. Erat only put up three points in the nine games he played with the Washington Capitals in 2013 and failed to score in the playoffs. He was traded to the Coyotes the following season after scoring just one goal in 53 games. The return basically boiled down to a fourth-round pick that was later traded for defenseman Tim Gleason, who played 17 games for the Capitals.

Filip Forsberg is now a 60-point scorer, somebody who’s hit 30 goals twice and is in pursuit this season. But what if the Washington Capitals knew the value they had in Forsberg? What if, instead of trading him for an aging Erat, the Caps elected to keep him? For this, we’ll leave the Predators alone – they likely would have traded Erat somewhere else. Instead, we’ll focus on the Capitals.

Immediate Impact

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With the Capitals failing to get somebody to help them in the playoffs (they failed at that anyway), they once again get bounced from the 2013 playoffs in the first round. Forsberg didn’t play any games for Washington that season, there’s no reason he would have gotten in against the Rangers. McPhee was also already on the rocks – he would have had one more season to prove himself.

McPhee would have put Forsberg into the lineup at the start of the 2013-14 season, hoping the young star would provide a much-needed spark. Forsberg only played 13 games in the real world, where he scored five points, with one goal.

He might not stick into Erat’s spot, as Erat was only playing 14:44 on average. It was Forsberg’s first season on North American ice, and he may have needed time to adjust. Instead, the Capitals might have looked at Forsberg, see what he can provide, but ultimately put him in the AHL to transition. In his lone AHL season, Forsberg put up 15-19–34 in 47 games. That would have been enough to prove himself to the Capitals for the 2014-15 season.

Erat Replacement

The Capitals instead would have brought in 21-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov one year earlier, giving him more games instead. Kuznetsov turned out quite well – 77 points in 2015-16, a total he’s chasing this season. He may have gotten time to adjust to the NHL at Erat’s winger spot before being placed in the center.

This wouldn’t have helped the Washington Capitals get to the playoffs. They had four goaltenders play that season, and that obstacle ultimately cost the Capitals their spot and they came in fifth in the Metropolitan. That would have still cost George McPhee his job. However, Washington might have more appreciation for him, Sam Hinkie style (we’ll see later).

The Washington Capitals drafted winger Jakub Vrana 13th overall in 2014. With Forsberg as their next great winger, killing it in the AHL, they might opt for somebody still on the board at the center position instead – Dylan Larkin.

Long-Term Projections

Now the Capitals still have Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson as their veteran core. They have young pieces in Dylan Larkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Filip Forsberg. They eventually would have run into salary cap troubles, but, they’d have an actual Stanley Cup contender.

Imagine the first line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Forsberg. Or imagine Forsberg on the second line with Kuznetsov – a young version of the best duo in Capitals history. You can’t stop both of those offensive pairings. Then put Dylan Larkin on the third line (maybe with Andre Burakovsky) or play him at the wing instead of center. Either way, the Capitals’ top six becomes probably the best in hockey. That’s why McPhee gets remembered.

That team is a Cup winner. Kuznetsov’s best season so far was 2015-16. That season, Forsberg scored 64 points, including 33 goals. Larkin was ready to go that season, scoring 23-22–45 in 80 games. Top that with 50 goals from Ovechkin and 70 points from Backstrom, and the Capitals steamroll their way to the President’s Cup.

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Inevitably, the Capitals come up against the Pittsburgh Penguins – who were about to start a repeat. But not against this version of the Capitals. Maybe the Penguins still find ways to stop Backstrom/Ovechkin, but there’s no way Kuznetsov fails to find his footing with Forsberg. Kuznetsov just feeds him the puck, and Forsberg scores.

That duo, plus Larkin (and Burakovsky) behind them – imagine the Capitals forcing the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin/Nick Bonino/Phil Kessel line to play defense – wins the series for Washington.

From there, Ovechkin and Backstrom get a confidence boost. It’s not just them this time. That’s a Cup win – the Washington Capitals are likely champions in 2016. Ending the arch-rival Penguins’ repeat before it even begins.

After the Cup

There are no rumors of trading Ovechkin. No unhappiness in Washington, no Barry Trotz on the hot seat, no Ted Leonsis grumbling in his box seats. The Capitals finally win the title for their franchise player.

Who walks away in the offseason of 2017 after winning another Cup. After all, Ovechkin’s displeasure of not playing in the Olympics is well-known. That doesn’t change with Forsberg. With two Cup wins, what’s left to play for in America for the Great Eight? He’s already achieved what’s now keeping him here. He heads to the KHL, where he helps lead Russia to 2018 Olympic gold. Will he be back? Maybe.

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But the Capitals have Forsberg, Kuznetsov, and Larkin. Their best days are ahead of them, and Ovechkin leaving, even though unpopular with the fans, opens up cap space to pay the Capitals’ Big Three.