Theme: “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”
On June 28th the Capitals announced that Brooks Laich signed a six-year contract extension with the club worth $27 million. At one level, it was recognition of a player who in the previous four seasons averaged 21 goals and 49 points a season. On another level it was validation of a player’s willingness to put in the work to make himself a better player. So fast forward to August, and there he was – again – working at being a better player.
Until now, it has been a case of working to get there. Now it also will be a case of managing expectations that come with a large contract. And that matter is complicated a bit by the season Laich had last year. After three years in which he improved each year in goals, assists, points, plus-minus, and power play goals, he dropped in each – from 25 to 16 in goals, from 34 to 32 in assists, from 59 to 48 in points, from plus-16 to plus-14, and from 12 power play goals to four.
That power play number was particularly striking. Almost his entire drop in offensive production from 2009-2010 to last season can be explained by the drop in power play goals from 12 to four last year. It was not as if he was getting less time on the man advantage. He averaged 2:59 per game of power play time in 2009-2010, 2:57 last season. But then again, neither was his drop in power play production an isolated thing, not when the Caps saw their power play goal total drop by 33 goals (42 percent) from 2009-2010 to last season.
If the drop in his power play production explains his drop in overall offensive production, his even strength production is a bit more mystifying. From 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 his Corsi/on-ice and Corsi/relative values at 5-on-5 improved from year-to-year, as did those values in the context of quality of competition faced (according to behindthenet.ca). But the improvement did not translate into improved scoring numbers (12-24-36 at ES in 2009-2010; 11-21-32 last season).
Fearless’ Take: Laich’s value is not merely as a scorer. He can play any forward position and can even chip in on defense in an emergency. Last season he had a 51.3 winning percentage on draws, and his home performance was almost a good as that of faceoff artist Boyd Gordon (57.4 percent to Gordon’s 57.6). His 32 assists was third on the club. He was fourth among Caps forwards in hits and was second among that group in blocked shots. He had a positive takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (1.19:1). And he led all Caps forwards in penalty-killing time (2:18/game). More than anything, it is Laich’s versatility that makes him valuable.
Cheerless’ Take: 17.2, 12.4, 11.3, 7.7. Those are the last four seasons of shooting percentages for Brooks Laich. More shots taken (122, 185, 222, 207 over those same four years) have not been accompanied by an increase, or even maintenance, of efficiency. Had he merely maintained the 11.3 percent shooting percentage he had in 2009-2010, he would have finished with 23 goals – his average over the previous three seasons.
The Big Question… Was 2010-2011 merely a blip in Brooks Laich’s progress as an offensive contributor?
Until last season, Laich had improved in each and every season of his career as a goal scorer until he reached the 25-goal plateau in 2009-2010. But that decline in shooting percentage has to be of concern. A 17.2 percent shooting percentage – what Laich had in 82 games the 2007-2008 season – isn’t rare (40 players since the lockout have had that percentage or better and at least 25 goals in at least 75 games), but it is not common, either. Last season’s 7.7 percent shooting percentage -- his worst since the 2006-2007 season -- was just one part of a team-wide drop from 11.6 percent in 2009-2010 to 8.5 percent last season. Still, one would not expect Laich to linger in a shooting neighborhood shared with Jay Beagle (7.4), Matt Bradley (6.9), or Matt Hendricks (8.0), as was the case last season.
In the end…
The temptation is to think that with the new six-year deal, Laich will become something more, perhaps a consistent 25-goal scorer (a number he has reached once in six full seasons in the NHL), or perhaps a consistent 60-point scorer (his high is 59), or the sort of special teams player who can consistently put up ten or more power play goals a season (he topped that number once with 12 in 2009-2010).
But the fact is, Laich is probably no more than an 11-13 goal scorer at even strength (that has been, in fact, the range of his even strength goal scoring the past four years). His ability to put up 20-goal seasons in the three years preceding last season was a function of his special teams production. Eight power play and two short-handed goals in 2007-2008; nine and one in 2008-2009, 12 and one in 2009-2010. Last season he dropped to four power play goals and one shorthanded. If his goal scoring is to improve, it will be a product of special teams.
It would not be surprising if Laich was among the hardest working players in the sport in terms of preparing his body to play. Now he has to bear the weight of expectations. We suspect he will rebound some from the season he had last year, but reaching his career best is going to be a matter of translating the power he develops in his workout regimens to power on the ice – power play production.
Projection: 82 games, 19-34-53, +15
(Photo: Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images North America)