The Washington Capitals put an end to months of speculation on Thursday when they announced they had traded veteran defenseman Brendan Witt to Nashville in exchange for center Kris Beech – originally drafted by Washington in 1999 – and the Predators’ first round draft choice in 2006.
The Witt deal was finalized and announced just minutes before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trading deadline. Witt had requested a trade last August, and Washington general manager George McPhee had said all along that he would honor Witt’s request but would only do so on the team’s timetable and in a deal that would make the most sense for the rebuilding Capitals. That deal finally came along on Thursday afternoon.
“The deal that was done today was the very best deal [for Brendan Witt] that we could have done all year, and we’re happy with it,” said McPhee a few hours after the swap was consummated. “[Nashville general manager] David Poile does not give away first round picks easily. But his team needed a player like Brendan and he has a chance to go deep in the playoffs this year. He made a good move. You like deals that work for both parties and this was a good one for both of us.”
Unless he procures another first round choice elsewhere between now and the draft in late June, this will mark the first time in nine drafts at the Nashville helm that Poile will not have a first round pick to exercise.
Earlier in the day, the Caps claimed right wing Rico Fata off waivers from Atlanta and sent left wing Jeff Friesen to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in exchange for a second round choice in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The Caps now have two first- and three second-round choices in the 2006 Draft.
Beech was Washington’s first choice (seventh overall) in the 1999 Entry Draft. The Capitals had five of the top 37 choices in the draft that year. He played his junior hockey with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen where his teammates included Matt Pettinger, Rastislav Stana, Owen Fussey and former Capital Stephen Peat.
Beech cracked the Capitals’ opening night roster as a 19-year-old in 2000-01 and made his NHL debut on Oct. 6, 2000 against Los Angeles. After four NHL contests with Washington, Beech was returned to his Calgary junior club. At the conclusion of the 2000-01 season, he was shipped to Pittsburgh along with cash and fellow 1999 draftees Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk in exchange for Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera.
Beech spent the entire 2001-02 season with the Pens, recording 10 goals and 25 points in 79 games. He has played only 25 games in the NHL since, shuttling between the AHL and the NHL. Just prior to the start of the 2005-06 season, Beech was dealt to Nashville for a conditional draft choice. He had a goal and three points in five games with the Predators this season, and has 18 goals and 50 points in 48 games with Nashville’s Milwaukee affiliate of the AHL in 2005-06.
“Beech is someone who has played very well in the American League the last couple of years,” said McPhee. “He has tremendous vision and playmaking ability and those guys are hard to find. Our pro scouts felt strongly that he was someone we should take a look at in this kind of environment.”
The 26-year-old Fata is a speedy winger who was Calgary’s first choice (sixth overall) in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. He has totaled 23 goals and 55 points in 199 NHL contests with Calgary, the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. He set career highs with 16 goals and 34 points with the Penguins in 2003-04.
“We’re thin at the forward position,” admitted McPhee. “We needed some more people who could play. We’ve tried almost all of our young players in Hershey, and now we want things to settle down [there] so they can prepare for the stretch drive and the playoffs. So we thought it was a good move to pick up Rico and give him a chance here. He is at the right age and has tremendous speed and energy, so we’d like to see him. And he knows some of our players, so it should be a nice fit for him.”
Fata has scored 23 or more goals in each of his three full AHL seasons, topping out with 35 goals and 71 points in 61 games with Hartford in 2001-02. In 2000-01, he was a teammate of current Cap Chris Clark on the Calder Cup champion Saint John Flames.
After the Capitals claimed Fata shortly before noon on Thursday, it didn’t take much vision to see that Friesen would soon be going elsewhere. Sure enough, within the next hour it was learned that Washington had dealt the veteran left wing to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, where he previously played from Mar. 2001 to July, 2002.
The Caps acquired Friesen from New Jersey last September in exchange for a conditional draft choice, which has finally and definitively been determined to be a third rounder in 2006. Washington hoped the durable winger would provide some secondary scoring and give them a serviceable second line left wing after Alexander Semin
remained in Russia instead of reporting for what would have been his sophomore season in the NHL. But Friesen was felled by a sports hernia early in the season, an injury that sapped his considerable speed and required surgery. He missed more than two months of action as a result.
Friesen started the season skating on the left side of a line with veteran center Andrew Cassels and rookie Czech right wing Petr Sykora. None of the three managed to last the season in a Washington uniform; the trio combined for just nine goals and 23 points in the 74 combined games in which they appeared with the Capitals this season. Friesen accounted for three goals and seven points in his 33 games with the Caps.
Witt joined the Washington organization on June 26, 1993 when he was chosen with Washington’s first pick (11th overall) in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft at Quebec City. The draft choice used to select Witt was one of five first round choices awarded to the Caps from St. Louis as a result of the Blues signing former Washington defenseman Scott Stevens to an offer sheet.
The second defenseman chosen overall (behind only Chris Pronger) in the ’93 Draft, Witt played his junior hockey for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds and played for Team Canada’s championship-winning under-18 team in the 1992 Pacific Cup in Japan. After the Caps drafted him, Witt played one more season with the T-Birds. Unable to come to terms with Washington on an entry-level deal, Witt sat out the entire 1994-95 season. Washington and Witt were finally able to agree to terms just minutes before the June 1, 1995 deadline for signing 1993 draftees.
Witt made the Capitals’ roster as a 20-year-old rookie in 1995-96, playing under former NHL defenseman Jim Schoenfeld, who was Washington’s head coach at the time. When Witt made his NHL debut on Oct. 7, 1995, he joined a seasoned group of veteran blueliners that included Sylvain Cote, Calle Johansson, Mark Tinordi, Joe Reekie and Jim Johnson. Witt departs Washington after nearly 13 years as a member of the organization with 626 games played, fourth all-time among Washington defenders, behind only Calle Johansson (983), Rod Langway (726) and Sergei Gonchar (654). No remaining Washington defenseman has logged half as many career games in the league as Witt.
When the Capitals faced the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round of the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs, Witt – along with Johansson, Gonchar and Ken Klee – was part of a solid core of four defensemen who had been together on the Capitals for eight seasons. At the time, no other team in the NHL could boast a group of four rearguards that had played together for so long. The Caps lost that playoff series to Tampa Bay and the foursome was split up that summer when Johansson retired and Klee signed with Toronto as a free agent.
In Nashville Witt is reunited with Poile, the former Capitals general manager who drafted him in 1993. He also joins Predators head coach Barry Trotz, who was coach of the AHL Portland Pirates in 1996-97 when Witt spent 30 games playing in Portland.
“I understand there are so many teams and I understand the business side of it, that George has to make the best deal for the team,” said Witt, two days before he was traded. “I understand that. Just to have the opportunity to play in the playoffs, that’s all I ask for. There are always upsets here and there in the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs. Once teams make the playoffs, it’s whoever’s game is the best and who gets the bounces. I’m looking forward to it.”
Although he was looking forward to the move and had requested it months ago, Witt was also somewhat sad to be leaving the only NHL organization he has ever known.
“It’s going to be emotional, leaving the guys and leaving the trainers,” he admitted. “All I have known is this [locker] room, my whole career. Going into a different room is going to be a different look for me: new faces, new people. But I’m also looking forward to it.”
The deal that sent Witt to Nashville was one of 25 trades involving 40 players fashioned by NHL general managers on Thursday. The number of trades set a deadline day record in the league; the total number of players involved is the second-highest total of players moved in deadline day history. Having been the Caps’ general manager for the better part of a decade now, McPhee has been through the trade deadline ordeal several times previously. He noted some changes in this one, the first one since the NHL returned to business with a new CBA after a lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
“Obviously people were reluctant to do anything until the last day,” McPhee remarked. “It was quite a surprise; I thought there would be more activity. What has changed is that people were really reluctant to move young players. In all the trades that were made, there were maybe five or six young players that moved. A lot of [draft] picks moved around. And by young players, I mean prospects. It’s probably a result of the [salary] cap. That’s the dynamic that has changed. If you want to construct your team properly and have success, you have to have young players in your lineup who are improving but don’t cost you a lot of money.
“I think draft picks still hold a lot of value. But managers were more inclined to reluctantly give them up than to give up prospects.”
If nothing else changes between now and the Entry Draft in late June, Washington figures to have five of the draft’s top 55 or 60 picks. During the McPhee era, the Caps have had drafts with few choices and drafts with extra choices. The extra choices give McPhee and the Capitals a number of options as they move forward with the rebuilding process in the summer ahead.
“We’ve been through this before,” said McPhee. “We’ve had lots of picks before. We’ll do what’s best for the organization with them. If it’s best to use them all on players in the draft, we will. If we need to use a couple to trade up, we will. If we [need to] trade them for future drafts, we will. If we need to trade them for warm bodies, we will. We’re not sure what direction that will take. We’ll analyze it over the next few months and see what develops.”