Theme: “The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
It might be easy to look at Brooks Laich’s style of hockey and pigeon-hole him as a grinding, third-liner sort of player, one who applies a certain amount of grit and tenacity to his effort, mixing in the odd goal here and there. But look a bit deeper. Laich was obtained in The Great Sell-Off of 2004 and played in four games for the Capitals in that season. Then came the lockout. But starting with the 2005-2006 season, he has shown almost unbroken progress in a number of statistical categories.
Goals: 7, 8, 21, 23, 25
Assists: 14, 10, 16, 30, 34
Points: 21, 18, 37, 53, 59
Power Play Goals: 1, 2, 8, 9, 12
He has become a reliably consistent secondary scorer, replacing the goals that the departed Chris Clark provided before injuries cut short his tenure with the Caps and providing an extra boost on the power play – his 12 goals last year tied for 13th in the NHL with Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau, among others.
Laich’s power play numbers are especially noteworthy in that among forwards playing in at least 50 games and skating at least one minute of power play ice time a game, he finished 14th in goals scored per 60 minutes. That ranking is higher than Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and even Alex Ovechkin.
His 5-on-5 numbers were a bit murkier, though. Looked at in a league-wide context, they look rather good. For instance, among forwards playing in at least 50 games last season, Laich ranked 21st (out of 351 forwards) is goals-on ice/goals-off ice differential at 5-on-5. But he ranked only seventh among Caps forwards in that measure. That seven Caps forwards rank in the top 21 in this measure is a product of the Caps’ overall ability to score goals. Among those same 351 forwards Laich ranked only 173rd in goals against on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
If there is a word to describe Laich, it might be “versatile.” Looking at the Caps forwards, he ranks rather highly on a number of lists:
Power Play Goals: 2nd
Shorthanded Goals: T-2nd
Game-Winning Goals: T-5th
Shots on Goal: T-3rd
Time on Ice: 4th
Power Play Time on Ice/Game: 4th
Shorthanded Time on Ice/Game: 3rd
Blocked Shots: 2nd
Face-Offs Taken: 5th
He was also 1-for-3 in shootouts, scoring on his only attempt at Verizon Center. He can play any forward position, score, defend, take faceoffs, and apply a physical edge. In the odd emergency, he also can play on the blue line. And, he has shown himself to be durable, having played in 257 consecutive games with the Caps until taking a puck in the face off the stick of John Carlson after a formal practice session had ended (ok, it was off Carlson’s stick, then off the crossbar, then off Laich’s face).
Laich was a productive performer against quality competition last season. In 26 games against Eastern Conference teams that would make the playoffs last season Laich finished 10-10-20, plus-5 (including 4-2-6 on the power play).
Fearless: Those numbers against Eastern Conference playoff teams were bolstered quite a bit by his going 3-2-5, plus-2 against Montreal in four games.
Cheerless: And in seven playoff games against Montreal he was 2-1-3, minus-2, and did not have a power play point in more than 32 minutes of man-advantage ice time.
In the end…
Bruce Boudreau once said of Laich:
“He doesn't want to miss anything, ever. To me he is the consummate hockey player. To me, if you had to put a picture in the dictionary of what is a hockey player, Brook is it. He loves it, he lives it, he competes hard at it and he improves and gets better at it all the time.” He certainly gives that impression, and his improvement over his first five full seasons with the Capitals has been plain to see, both in the tangible aspects of the numbers he put up and in the intangibles as he emerges as a leader on this club."
In fact, his playoff production looked to be on a similar arc, having gone 1-4-6 in seven games in the 2008 opening round loss to the Flyers, then 3-4-7 in 14 games in 2009. But in the opening round loss to Montreal this past spring, Laich fell silent for the most part. It was part of a larger problem that Caps had, especially on the power play (1-for-33 in the series). If anything, Laich’s lack of production was a perverse indicator of his importance to the team. The absence of the secondary scoring he provides was a critical element in the Caps falling in seven games to the Canadiens. In the four losses the Caps recorded in the series, Laich was 1-0-1, minus-2 (parenthetically, those four games also happened to be the ones in which he recorded his four highest ice time results), games in which the Caps scored a total of five goals.
Laich’s role on this club is not well-defined. That is not a bad thing; it is a product of his versatility. He is likely to lineup opposite Alexander Semin on the Caps’ second line on most nights. He will get second unit power play time, and he will get a healthy dose of penalty killing time. It might be a stretch to think he will improve much, if at all, in his goal scoring numbers, owing to the uncertainty at center on the second line (although it is worth noting that during the Caps 14-game winning streak last season, much of which featured Tomas Fleischmann – this season’s front runner to center the second line – Laich was 6-3-9 in those games).
Even if he does improve on his regular season numbers, it is his playoff production as much as any other Capital that will bear watching. If he can chip in the kind of secondary scoring that has characterized his regular season play, a deep run will be in the cards for the Caps. And playing in May and June sure beats changing tires. Maybe next time, if he sees a stranded motorist, he could use the Stanley Cup as a jack.
79 games, 24-36-60, plus-15