Nashville Predators general manager David Poile selected Martin Erat in the seventh round of the 1999 NHL draft, making the young man from Trebic, Czech Republic, the 191st player selected that year. From that point on Erat’s trajectory would lead to him becoming one of the cornerstones of a franchise that never quite put together the right combination of talent around him to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
Martin Erat was born in 1981 when the Czech Republic of today was still part of Czechoslovakia, a communist satellite of the Soviet Union where hockey players weren’t allowed to go west and find their fortunes. His older brother Roman turned 18 before the fall of the Iron Curtain and never was able to make an attempt at playing in the NHL. Martin began playing junior hockey just as the NHL began to make agreements with Eastern European leagues that would allow their players to come to North America to play. At age 18 he left his native land for Canada’s Western Hockey League, where he was noticed by Nashville’s scouts while playing for the Red Deer Rebels. One late-round draft pick later, his life changed forever.
Erat fulfilled his lifelong ambition of playing in the NHL when he made his debut in a Nashville Predators sweater on October 5th, 2001. He played 13 minutes and 17 seconds against the Dallas Stars that night. He tallied his first NHL point six nights later against the Calgary Flames, and his first NHL goal against the Minnesota Wild before the month was through. He went on to total 33 points in 80 games during his rookie season, making him one of the bright spots on a young expansion team. He split time between Nashville and Milwaukee in 2002-03, but in 2003-04 he finally broke out with a 49-point season. From there he became a model of consistency, scoring between 49 and 57 points every season from 2003-04 through 2010-11 and finally tallying a career high 58 points in 2011-12. Along the way he helped the team to its first-ever playoff victories, in 2011 against the Anaheim Ducks and last season against the Detroit Red Wings.
All that consistency was rewarded with a seven-year, $31.5 million contract beginning in the 2008-09 season. It came with a no-movement clause, a signal of long-term commitment from both Erat and the Nashville Predators organization. That commitment finally ended this season, a rough one for both the Predators and Erat. After scoring the team’s first goal less than a minute into the season and playing a few more solid games, he went on an extended scoring slump. The team began falling out of contention before the season was halfway through, partly from a lack of production and partly from too many injuries. Erat approached Poile to ask for a trade in recent weeks and then promptly began playing better as the GM looked for a solution that could accommodate everyone’s desires. With time running out on getting a deal done this season, George McPhee stepped in yesterday and ended Martin Erat’s time with the Nashville Predators.
There was some talk out there yesterday that Erat had bailed on the Preds by requesting a trade in what’s been a pretty rough season for them. I don’t buy that for a second. The guy played a solid decade for the team, through good times and bad, and never requested a trade before this point. Those aren’t the actions of a bailer. He took a long look at the state of Nashville’s roster, at the coaching and management, and at the friendships and rivalries and everything else that comes along with being part of a team, and after evaluating it all against a matrix of his own career and life goals decided that a change was the best thing for him. Who are we to judge him for it, especially given that exactly none of us can ever walk in his shoes? He has the right to determine what’s best for not only himself but his family. His 11 years of service should have earned him some respect in going about that process as he sees fit.
Besides, there’s a case to be made that what Martin Erat did helped the team that drafted him and gave him a home for more than a decade just as much as it fulfilled his desire for a change of scenery. Nashville’s single biggest problem over the years has been its inability to develop true top-line scoring talent, and Filip Forsberg fills that gap in a way that Poile couldn’t over the past few years as he dealt away the Preds’ first-round picks for rental players. So the team sheds salary in preparation for re-signing critical young restricted free agents, picks up a highly talented prospect at a time when it system is more depleted than its has been in years, and makes one of its longest-serving players happy as he begins to play out the latter third of his career. What’s not to like?
As it stands, Martin Erat ends his tenure with the Nashville Predators as one of the franchise’s all-time leaders in nearly every statistical category. He played 722 games (2nd among all Preds players), scored 163 goals (2nd), dished out 318 assists (2nd), totaled 481 points (2nd), and felt shame for 426 PIM (5th). Among all of the players on this year’s roster he had the highest career points-per-game average at 0.666, ranking him eighth in franchise history behind names like Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott, Cliff Ronning, and Steve Sullivan.
I hope all the other Preds fans out there will join me in wishing Martin Erat well in Washington. I’ll look forward to his return to Bridgestone Arena next season, when the game operations team will put together a video tribute befitting a player who gave so much of himself to the franchise over the years. The crowd will give him a standing ovation, and he’ll tear up over the emotions he’s feeling. Then the puck will drop, he’ll be just another opponent, and one of the final links to the earliest days of Nashville Predators history will be severed forever.