Thursday, May 13, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

Theme: "The ordinary man is involved in action, the hero acts. An immense difference."

-- Henry Miller

OK, “hero” is a bit much for a 25-goal scorer, but if that day comes when the Caps do win a Stanley Cup, we’re going to bet that Brooks Laich will be right up there among the reasons they do so. On a team with young guns such as Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, Laich held his own statistically. He finished fifth on the club in goals, fifth in assists, fifth in points, tied for fifth in power play goals, tied for fifth in takeaways, second in power play goals, second among forwards in blocked shots, third among forwards in shorthanded ice time, fourth among forwards in power play ice time. His ten game segments, though, were somewhat uneven…

…he had the appearance of a strong start (10-15-25, plus-5 in his first 29 games) and a strong finish (14-14-28, plus-15 in his last 31 games – he missed four games at the end of March). He was 1-5-6, minus-4 in the 18 games in-between, from December 7th through January 15th.

Against Eastern Conference teams making the playoffs, Laich finished 10-10-20, plus-5 in 26 games – a 32-32-64, plus-16 pace, not all that different from his overall season results. But underneath what looks like consistency is the same sort of roller coaster kind of ride that reflected his overall numbers. Against Boston, Montreal, and Philadelphia, he was 10-6-16, plus-8. Against the other four playoff teams he was 0-4-4, minus-3.

Laich is something of a hidden weapon in one respect. Of all NHL forwards finishing the year with at least 25 goals, Laich tied for third in the share of his goals coming with the man advantage – 48.0 percent. Only Tomas Holmstrom (13 of 25) and Teemu Selanne (14 of 27) had a larger share of their goals come on the power play. Not bad, considering Laich finished 95th among forwards in average time on ice on the power play (2:57/game). Over the last three years, Laich has 29 power play goals among his 69 total tallies (42.0 percent).

The uneven manner in which Laich posted his numbers came back to haunt him in a key respect. One might have foreseen this as the regular season drew to a close. It started at a practice on March 23rd, when Laich was hit in the cheek by a shot from John Carlson that hit the crossbar and ricocheted into Laich’s face. He missed four games (the only ones he’s missed in the past three seasons), and he finished up with a goal and two assists in his last six games after returning to the lineup. The dip in production carried over into the playoffs as Laich was held without a point in five of the first six games of the series against Montreal. Fittingly, it seems, in the game in which he did score he recorded the game-winning goal in a 5-1 win. He would score one more goal in the series – in Game 7 – but by the time it came, with barely two minutes remaining in the Caps’ season, it ended up coming too late.

Laich’s progress has been steady and sure in the most often cited numbers. In five seasons since the lockout, he has improved his goals scored from seven in the 2005-2006 season to eight, 21, 23, and 25 this past season. Assists – 14, 10, 16, 20, 34. He was a “minus” player in that 2005-2006 season (gee, who wasn’t?), but was a plus-16 this past season. Power play goals increased – one, two, eight, nine and 12 over the last five seasons. He had 11 game winning goals over the past three seasons. And this statistic might end up being the most important one going forward – he finished third on the club with 222 shots on goal, behind only Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. As a player who was famously quoted as saying, “"If you want money, go to the bank. If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net,” he spent a lot of time baking this past season, and he could be a critical net presence for the Caps in the future. On a team that features players who take a large number of intermediate and perimeter shots, having that presence is crucial to the team’s success.

Over the past five seasons, Laich has emerged as a clubhouse leader, one who was frequently mentioned as a potential team captain. That he does not wear the “C” does not diminish his capacity to lead, and his example on and off the ice suggests a maturity greater than one might expect from a player who is still only 26 years old. His adventure after the Game 7 disappointment against Montreal is already something of a legend. His humility in the face of such a gesture, remarking that “it was just a tire, it’s not that big a deal,” only adds to his “hero” narrative.

Yes, “hero” is probably too much of an adjective to describe the sort of season and career arc Laich has had, but he is the kind of player that is both consequential on winning clubs and the kind of person that would appear to make teammates – not to mention a couple of fans – happier for having him on their side.

Grade: B+

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