ARLINGTON, Va. -- When Martin Erat left the Nashville Predators for the Washington Capitals at last season's trade deadline, he ranked second in franchise history in most points, goals, assists and games played, accolades he accumulated as a top-six fixture.
Erat, however, never was afforded a proper opportunity to establish himself among the Capitals' top forwards upon his arrival as untimely injuries -- a left knee injury sustained in his second game against the Florida Panthers and a dislocated left elbow that ended his season in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers -- bookended his initial stint in Washington.
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 3 | +/-: -1
The Capitals acquired the 32-year-old to bolster their top-six forward depth, trading away highly touted prospect Filip Forsberg to do so. Yet when this season began, a healthy Erat found himself on the fourth line, playing single-digit minutes per night.
Erat's ice time reached its nadir Wednesday during the Capitals' 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers when he registered a season-low 6:20, the third-lowest ice time of his 739-game NHL career when he didn't leave the game early due to injury.
Erat expressed incredulity and frustration whenever discussing his diminished role, which coach Adam Oates chalked up to the challenge of finding minutes for all of his forwards as well as figuring out where Erat fits with a healthy Brooks Laich, whose void Erat filled last season, back in the mix.
Yet with the Capitals struggling to muster offense at even strength with just eight goals through seven games, Erat finally will break into the top-six for the first time this season Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, skating on the second line with Laich and Troy Brouwer.
"It's a great opportunity for me to get more ice time and play with those two guys and see how everything goes, how's the chemistry, and go from there," Erat said following practice Friday. "When you get more minutes, when you get the feel of the game, you feel better on the ice and every minute more you just get more confidence with the puck and you can trust yourself more."
Washington's second line, which previously featured Laich, Brouwer and Mikhail Grabovski, combined for just one even-strength goal with all three on the ice together. Erat's new linemates believe that his explosive skating ability and strong play along the boards will complement Laich's natural center instincts and Brouwer's newfound role of serving as the finisher.
"He sees the ice well," Brouwer said of Erat. "He was brought up in an organization in Nashville that's very defensive, very structured, and it's easy to play with those types of guys because you know exactly where they're going to be on the ice."
Further adding to that line's potential is the simple fact that Erat will be highly motivated to prove that he belongs in a more prominent role.
"He hasn't played a lot of minutes and he's coming in with a lot of hunger," Laich said. "You know he's going to be flying. He's going to want to earn more and more minutes. We've all been there on the fourth line or something and you almost want to give it to the coach and say, 'Play me because I can do this.' Marty's going to come in with that fire."