NASHVILLE -- The first and the fourth picks in the 1999 Entry Draft were forwards from the Czech Republic.
Predators right wing Martin Erat, a Czech native who was taken in that draft, has 454 points in 677 career games -- an impressive haul -- and has proven himself incredibly consistent in his 10 seasons. Of late, he is one of the hottest players in the League, with 29 points (9 goals, 20 assists) in his last 31 games, helping to power his team near the top of the League standings, where Nashville entered the day tied for fifth with Pittsburgh.
But back in '99, Erat was selected by Nashville in the seventh round, 190 players after Atlanta took Patrik Stefan first and 187 after Carolina took Pavel Brendl. Stefan's career ended after seven NHL seasons in which he totaled 188 points in 455 games and he never scored more than 14 goals in a season. Brendl played only 78 games with totals of 11 goals and 11 assists.
Right Wing - NSH
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 35 | PTS: 52
SOG: 93 | +/-: 14
SOG: 93 | +/-: 14
"Before the lockout they always drafted big guys," Erat said. The growth "just happened. I was a surprise. I got (to the NHL) the hard way and that's the way it is."
In an organization like Nashville's in which consistency and continuity are prized -- Barry Trotz is the only coach in franchise history and David Poile the only general manager -- Erat stands as examples of those traits in a player.
Beginning in 2003-04 -- the first season that Nashville made the playoffs -- Erat's points totals show little in the way of vacillation: 49, 49, 57, 57, 50, 49 and 50. He's a bankable quantity. This season, he has 17 goals and 35 assists for 52 points in 61 games, which puts him on a pace for a career-best 63 points despite missing eight of the team's first nine games.
Trotz explained why, in his view, Erat is able to remain so consistent.
"He's got a really good inner spirit, a competitive spirit that pushes him to that level every year," Trotz said. "He's a real underrated player. You talk about a player that no one talks about in the National Hockey League, Martin Erat might be that guy."
Erat said that as a young player, he tried to learn from the work habits of Paul Kariya, who played two seasons in Nashville, arriving when Erat was 24 and had only two full seasons in the League under his belt. Even Peter Forsberg made an impression during his short stay.
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While Erat might be a well-kept secret, so might his entire line. With Sergei Kostitsyn at left wing and Mike Fisher at center, it's possible that all three can finish with 20 goals, 50 points and a rating of at least plus-12. Fisher already has 21 goals, tied for best on the team. Since coming together around Jan. 1, the members of the line are averaging almost a point per game. Kostitsyn has 11 goals and 12 assists in his last 25 games. Fisher has 13 goals and 13 assists in his last 29 games.
In addition to being the team's top offensive line, it also can double as a checking line. Trotz likes to match them up against other teams' top lines. All three kill penalties.
"I think any time, to me, you play with offensive guys, you always get chances and it's fun," Fisher said. "I like to play at both ends of the ice and we try to be responsible defensively. And Marty's an all-around guy who can play at that and with the skill of those two guys, we've kind of created a fun line."
The line has been so productive that Trotz refused to break it up after Nashville acquired Kostitsyn's brother Andrei from Montreal at Feb. 27's trade deadline. (He does pair the brothers on the power play quite successfully.)
Fisher said that Erat has "sneaky speed" and is "shifty, too."
"He does a real good job of delaying the puck and making plays back, cutting wide and finding space," Fisher said.
Those are the kind of moves that Erat's Czech countryman Jaromir Jagr also likes to make. Like many players of Erat's generation -- Czech or otherwise -- Jagr was his favorite growing up. Erat has twice played on Czech Olympic teams with Jagr, but as both are right wings, they don't get to play on the ice at the same time. Erat marvels at how Jagr can still be so productive at age 40.
It's been almost 13 years since Erat was drafted so far behind those other two Czech players back in '99. That mantra of getting him to the NHL the hard way has carried him far and he hopes it will carry his team even farther this season.
"This year we got more guys who are working, got their working shoes on, and they work every single game," Erat said. "This NHL, this new NHL, you have to come every single game. If you don't play (well) for 10 games, you can have a snowball right away. That's what's good about this team. Even if you're losing first or second period, we're still in the game and that gives you a chance every single game."