Theme: “The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.”
-- Richard Grant
“We’re making the playoffs…We’re not talking worst-case scenario. We’re making the playoffs….There’s probably games in October that you wish you had or November or whatever, but over the course of 82 games your team identity is going to be revealed. And either you are or you aren’t a playoff team. There’s really no gray area.”
Fair enough. When Brooks Laich uttered those words on a local radio talk show on April 4th, the Caps were hanging onto a playoff spot by the thinnest of margins, a tie-breaker over the Buffalo Sabres, with whom they were tied in points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
It was a rather bold pronouncement, given that the Caps were coming off a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and had split their last four decisions, both wins coming in the Gimmick. The Caps made good on Laich’s sort-of guarantee, though, winning their final two games to secure the seventh seed in the East. But that reference to establishing an identity over an 82-game season works for individual players as well as the team.
Before that 82-game season started for Laich and the Capitals, Laich signed a six-year contract extension worth $27 million. If he was not one of the “Young Guns” – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom – he was certainly now one of the players around whom the team would be built. The expectation that comes with such a commitment by the club is that the extent he could marry identity to purpose would go a long way toward determining the club’s success.
So, if an 82-game season establishes an identity, what was Laich’s?
After 82 games, it was hard to tell. First, a bit of context. From the time he joined the Capitals organization, his production was an unbroken upward climb. He had seven goals in 73 games of the 2005-2006 season, followed by seasons of eight, 21, 23, and 25 goals. Points were largely the same – 21 points followed by a hiccup of 18, but then 37, 52, and 59 points in 2009-2010. His plus-minus followed the arc of the club over that period, starting with a minus-9 in 2005-2006 and ending with a plus-16 in 2009-2010. And he became a power play producer as well, jumping from a single power play goal in 2005-2006 to 12 such markers in 2009-2010.
But in 2010-2011 all of those numbers dropped. From a 25-34-59, plus-16 mark, with an 11.3 percent shooting percentage in 2009-2010, he fell to 16-32-48, plus-14, 7.7 percent in 2010-2011. This season, with the newly minted contract, the hope was that Laich would return to something approaching those 20-plus goal, 50-plus point seasons.
It did not start that way. Other than a three-assist, plus-3 effort in a 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim on November 1st, his start to the 2011-2012 season was not a fast one. Absent that three-assist, plus-3 effort against the Ducks, Laich was 3-4-7, minus-5, over the other 15 of his first 16 games.
Curiously enough, though, Laich caught a spark just as the team was careening downward toward Thanksgiving and what would ultimately be coach Bruce Boudreau’s firing. Laich was 2-2-4, plus-1 in the four games immediately preceding Thanksgiving, but it was not nearly enough to prevent the Caps from getting pasted by Toronto (7-1) and the New York Rangers (6-3) around one-goal wins over Phoenix and Winnipeg. But Laich continued to be sharp at an individual level. In 12 games from November 17th to December 9th he was 5-5-10 to give him a 7-12-19 scoring line over 28 games. He was on a pace to be that 20-goal/50-point player (actually, 21-35-56).
But over his last 54 games Laich was 9-13-22 on his way to a 16-25-41 scoring line for the season. That was a relatively meager 14-20-34 pace over those last 54 games. As it was the goal total was unchanged from the 2010-2011 season, and the assists and points were down from the previous season. Whereas his first five full seasons with the Caps were characterized by an almost unbroken upward progression in his summary statistics, he now experienced drop-offs in each of the past two seasons.
And his underlying numbers were not very strong, either. Among the 15 Capital Forwards playing in at least 20 games, Laich had the third-worst Corsi value on-ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca).On-ice shooting percentage (7.98/10th) plus on-ice save percentage (.918/8th) made for his PDO value at 5-on-5 ranking ninth among these Capital forwards. He did, however, face the stiffest competition at 5-on-5 of any Capital forward playing in at least 20 games, while his quality of teammates ranked 12th. In a way, he was not dealt a winning hand. To this add the fact that he had the third lowest offensive zone start shares among these forwards (43.1 percent), and it made for a difficult terrain to negotiate to realize decent offensive numbers.
One other set of numbers that painted an unfortunate picture in terms of production – at 5-on-4 Laich had only the eighth best shooting percentage/on-ice among Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games and recording at least one minute of ice time per 60 minutes. For someone who needs to have the keys to the bakery as part of his power play scoring repertoire, this was not a hoped for level of efficiency.
At the other end, at 4-on-5 his on-ice save percentage was only fifth best among Caps forwards with the same inclusion criteria, and Laich led the club’s forwards in ice-time per 60 minutes at 4-on-5.
Odd Laich Fact… Brooks Laich was something of a monster against the Southeast Division: 7-9-16, plus-7, 11.5 percent shooting percentage in 24 games against the other teams of the division. However, against everyone else he was 9-16-25, minus-15, with a 6.9 percent shooting percentage in 58 games.
Game to Remember… November 1, 2001. The Anaheim Ducks waddled into Verizon Center on the first day of November and went out to a 3-0 lead before the half-way point of the game. But the Caps mounted a comeback, in no small part fueled by Brooks Laich. He had the primary assist on the Caps’ first goal, scored by Joel Ward at 13:23 of the second period. He had the primary assist when Dennis Wideman scored barely three minutes later. Then, he had an assist on the game-tying goal by Nicklas Backstrom with just 42 seconds left in regulation. He finished the night with three assists, plus-3, three shots on goal (six attempts), and two hits in being named the third star in the Caps’ 5-4 overtime win.
Game to Forget… February 22, 2012. On this night when the Capitals visited the Ottawa Senators, the Caps had barely gotten warmed up when they fell behind, 2-0, Laich being on ice for both goals against in the first period. Ottawa added a pair in the second period to push their lead to 4-0, and Laich, perhaps out of frustration or one last gasp of trying to change momentum, took on Zach Smith in a fight six seconds after the fourth Senator goal. Laich might have won the fight, but he would also be on the ice for one more goal – an empty-netter with 1:13 left – and the Caps lost, 5-2.
Post-Season… Like so many Caps, it was just not quite enough in the end. Laich had a goal in each of the two playoff rounds and finished with seven points in 14 games. His playoff goal-scoring has been spotty – four in his last 27 games. But in this post-season he did lead all Capital forwards in blocked shots (even today, before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, he ranks second in this statistic among forwards), and he had only two giveaways in the 14 games in which he played.
In the end… Brooks Laich did not have a bad season, but given another drop in numbers from the previous year, it cannot be counted in the “good” column, either. He had his opportunities, getting more than two minutes of power play ice time per game (but recording only nine points compared to 13 the previous year, although with more ice time – 2:59/game). His production had the impression of being “off” almost across the board. And having his numbers drop for a second consecutive year, one wonders what Laich’s identity will be going forward. A second-line winger? A third-line center? A jack-of-all-trades who is deployed at even-strength, shorthanded, and with a man-advantage? Settling that matter will be no small issue in determining how far the Caps can yet progress on their way to a Stanley Cup.