Theme: “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”
Samuel Johnson was an 18th century essayist, not a hockey player (he might have been a power forward if he was), but his quote certainly applies to Brooks Laich, hockey player. Laich is perhaps the unexpected feel-good story of the Capitals this year. Laich was awarded a $725,000 contract in arbitration last July and came to training camp as one of many players out of the same mold – grinders for third or fourth line duty – fighting for a spot on the roster. That he might be moved wasn’t exactly an original thought.
When the curtain fell on the 2007-2008 regular season, Laich played in all 82 games (one of only four Caps to do so), was the team’s sixth leading scorer (tied with Michael Nylander), was its third leading power play goal scorer (tied with Mike Green), and was its second leading game-winning goal scorer (tied with Green and Nicklas Backstrom). Tell us you saw that coming when the season started, and you can take the name “Peerless Prognosticator.”
The thing is, though, through 60 games you still might not have seen it coming...
Through those first 60 games he was a respectable 9-8-17, -4 – not bad for a third/fourth line forward on a team on the playoff margin. But those last 22 games…12-8-20, +1, and a pair of game-winning goals. He became the club’s sharpshooter over that last stretch, scoring those 12 goals on a total of 46 shots (26.1%). And, he was something of a power play terror, netting seven power play goals over those last 22 games.
And it wasn’t as if Laich was a one-note wonder. Here is perhaps an interesting number to ponder…Laich was credited with at least one point against every team in the Eastern Conference except Montreal. For an Alex Ovechkin, you would expect that sort of thing (yes, he did score against every team in the East), but for a player with only 37 points all year, that is rather unexpected.
If there was one adjective to describe Laich this year, it would be “versatile." In addition to the power play prowess he exhibited in the last quarter of the season, he could play any of the forward positions. We describe him here as a winger, but he took almost 600 draws this year in seeing substantial time at center (47.2 percent wins). He also led the forwards in blocked shots this year (56…ok, Quintin Laing had only four fewer in 43 fewer games) and was fifth among forwards in hits.
What makes his production especially noteworthy is that Laich was 12th on the team in ice time, among players who played in at least half of the Caps’ games this year. In this respect he benefitted from the coaching change in a rather substantial way. In the first 21 games of the year, he averaged only about 11:50/game – five times he skated for less than ten minutes. Over the last 61 games he averaged about 14:50/game and only skated fewer than 12 minutes only three times. Part of this was out of necessity (the minutes vacated by Nylander went he went on injured reserve had to be made up), part the result of some solid play.
Laich’s season is that of the Capitals in miniature. Not especially highly thought of when the season began, he struggled with ice time and production early, then got a life when the club made a change behind the bench. The spark he got helped give the Caps a boost in the last 60 games of the season, during which his production improved dramatically, especially over those frantic last 20 games. That is would be Laich who might be called the club’s most pleasant surprise this year is most unexpected. It is with that in mind that we’re inclined to grade him rather highly…