Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Martin Erat, Mathieu Perreault and the Post's lack of interest

So imagine that back during the Nats' 2012 season, they had traded their best hitting prospect, Anthony Rendon. It was in July, during Ian Desmond's stint on the disabled list, and the Nats traded Rendon to the Brewers for a solid but unspectacular veteran -- someone like Ricky Weeks, a 30-year-old making $9 million a year not having a real good season but with a history in recent years of hitting more than 20 homers, an OPS over 800, etc. Weeks ended up getting injured late in the season and the Nats lost in the first round of the playoffs, but when the next season arrived, Weeks ended up a bench player -- pinch hitting with a start once or twice a week even as Danny Espinosa struggled to hit. Oh, and also imagine that the Nats, right before the season, decided that they had some hot pitching prospects in the minors they wanted to use, so they traded Ross Detwiler for an A-ball reliever who scouts said was unlikely to ever make the majors. And now imagine that the Washington Post Sports section, other than reporting that these things happened, virtually ignored them.

Yes, that would be ridiculous. Tom Boswell would have written multiple columns analyzing the thinking behind these decisions and whether they were wise, and Jason Reid probably would have chimed in with a column (probably something saying he trusted management to make the right decisions and that the Nats were still likely to win 100 games). Mike Wise might have written a column, too, interviewing Ricky Weeks on how he felt about not playing (perhaps including Ricky Weeks' opinion on the Redskins' name while he was at it.) And the Nats' beat writers probably would have multiple blog posts examining the issue.

Of course, none of these trades were made by the Nationals in the past two years. But similar moves were made by the Washington Capitals. They traded future for present by dealing top propsect Filip Forsberg for the 32-year-old solid but unspectacular Martin Erat, making $4.5 million in a sports with a salary cap. After he got injured last season, he came back this season and has so far been relegated to the fourth line, playing less than 10 minutes a game. And right before the season, the Caps traded Matthieu Perreault, a guy who was their third-leading goal scorer in 2011-2012 and tied for the team points lead last year in the playoffs for the Caps, for pretty much nothing (a fourth-round pick and a player who isn't expected to play in the NHL). And the Washington Post Sports section has virtually ignored them.

When the Erat trade was made last April, it was extremely controversial among fans --many who felt the team had made a shortsighted move. The Post, of course, had an article about the trade. They also printed a relatively brief, 400-word piece by Neil Greenberg backing the trade by noting that Forsberg hadn't proven anything yet in the NHL while Erat, based on statistical analytics, was a solid top-six forward. That was a perfectly legitimate opinion, but it didn't delve into the broader issues that a trade like this represented for the Caps--are they in a "win now" mode with a trade like this and willing to jettison other prospects to acquire veterans for a Cup run? Was this a trade more about short-term gains (making the playoffs last year) at the expense of a better team with a better shot at the Cup two or three years down the road? Those questions were never addressed by the Post -- after Greenberg's piece, the Erat-Forsberg trade and its implications and questions it raised for the future were never discussed again, aside from a piece this preseason by beat writer Katie Carrera when the Caps played the Predators about how both Erat and Forsberg were adjusting to their new teams.

Erat, though, would remain controversial when the new season started. He was placed on the fourth line, playing just nine minutes in his first game and even less in most subsequent games. To her credit, Carerra authored a blog post after opening night with quotes from Erat questioning his role and a very interesting quote from Adam Oates which appeared to be somewhat of an admission that the trade was made more to acquire a stopgap replacement for Brooks Laich than out of some actual plan for the future ("Last year, when we made the trade, Brooksie was hurt, and Brooksie's healthy right now," Oates said.) That was on Oct. 2. It's now 16 days later, Erat remains on the fourth line playing less than ten minutes a night and Caps fans on Twitter and on blogs express puzzlement and anger at why a player making $4.5 million, who was acquired for a top prospect, is being utilized this way. And in those 16 days, no one at the Post has written anything more about it--not Carrera, not a columnist, not Barry Svrluga in an "On Hockey" piece (and actually, this would be perfect for him -- but he's covering the baseball postseason.) It doesn't even seem like anyone (from either the Post or other local media) has even asked Adam Oates or General Manager George McPhee about this puzzling deployment of personnel (I haven't seen either one answer a specific question about it since that Oct. 2 interview, but I'd be glad to be corrected if anyone has evidence to the contrary.)

But the relative silence on the Erat situation is topped by the virtual news blackout on any kind of analysis or discussion of the Caps' trade of Mathieu Perreault for, well....virtually nothing. Perreault had his faults as a player -- he was small and wasn't considered a top defensive player -- but he had good offensive skills, was fun to watch and was popular among fans. And for a team that struggles to score when it's not on the power play, a guy with offensive talent would seemingly be of some value. But when the Caps decided that they wanted rookie Tom Wilson in the lineup and needed salary cap space, they jettisoned the low-priced Perreault (and replaced him in the lineup with Eric Fehr, who had never played center before this preseason.) It was another deal that caused bafflement and upset among Caps fans, but other than the article reporting the trade, there's been no commentary or analysis on anything related to the move (unless you count the one sentence mentioning the trade in this John Feinstein column previewing the season). In fact, that article didn't even contain a quote from George McPhee explaining the rationale for the trade--nor has McPhee been quoted in the Post (or anywhere, for that matter) giving any explanation or answering any questions about why this trade was made. How can that be?

My complaints about coverage of the Caps in the Post have long boiled down to two major issues: that the Caps aren't covered the same way other professional teams in the city are covered -- with serious attention paid to their personnel moves -- and that the team's coaches, front office and decisionmakers rarely, if ever, face any kind of accountability from the media -- and even when they do, it's dwarfed by the attention paid to Alex Ovechkin, who is usually blamed for any loss or setback the Caps sustain. And both criticisms apply here. If the Nats or Redskins or even Wizards traded a young player full of a potential for an older player, and then rarely used that older player, would the Post write one article and then pretty much ignore it as the team started off the season 2-5 and had trouble scoring? And is anyone going to ask Oates and McPhee about the Erat situation and the Perrault trade, either directly in a press conference or interview, or rhetorically in columns and analysis pieces in the paper?

Ironically, after years of the local media incessantly asking what's wrong with Ovechkin, he's the only thing really going right with the Capitals. But from the front office to the coaching to the other players on the ice, there are problems. And, unfortunately, those problems include the Post's coverage of the team.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Echoes my feelings completely. The Caps will never be contenders as long as the only feedback they receive will be in the form of sellouts, and by the time those end it will undoubtedly be time for yet another rebuild.

Leonsis has a weird relationship with the Post; on one hand he criticizes the lack of coverage, but on the other he seems to dismiss most negative feeback. He's convinced that he and GMGM have it all figured out: "I see no weaknesses", "We'll contend for another 10 years", "If they knew anything about the game, they'd be in it", etc.

10/18/13, 9:41 AM  
Blogger Erin Doran said...

The Post's lack of coverage of the Caps isn't why the team is bad, but it really has done a disservice to the fans by not getting any explanations for the last two horrible trades.

Erat/Forsberg was justifiable when Erat played on the 2nd line, it is horrible if that was always just a stopgap solution until Laich was healthy again.

Perrault for nothing just so that Wilson could be squeezed onto the roster was horrible at the time. It will get even worse if (as seems likely) Wilson get's sent down to Hershey next week before his contract goes on the books for the whole year (happens after he plays in his 10th game).

Considering that the Caps are they only local team playing most nights and they sellout all their home games, it really is a shame that the coverage is so spotty.

10/18/13, 10:03 AM  
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