Britt Reid: You know what you are. You're a human Swiss army knife.
Kato: I don't know what's that mean?
Britt Reid: It's a little thing, and you keep pulling out things, and just when you think there couldn't be any more cool things, a new cool thing comes out, and that's you! You are even dressed like one. You should have a little plus on your chest.
-- from “The Green Hornet”
You are a player that can be an effective defensive forward on the third line. You can do the dirty work and chip in some offense on the second line. In a pinch you can center the first line. And if things get really bad, you can take a shift or two on defense. You might not be the Green Hornet’s masked partner, Kato, but you are versatile enough and valuable enough as a hockey player to be signed to a six-year/$27 million contract by the Capitals in June 2011.
He is not a top-line scorer. He is not likely to be a Selke Trophy candidate for his defense. He is not the playmaker Nicklas Backstrom is. But Brooks Laich is as versatile as any player in the NHL. For his first five seasons with the Caps he was also among the steadiest in terms of continuous improvement, jumping from seven goals in 73 games in 2005-2006 to 25 goals in 78 games in 2009-2010. His power play contributions were equally impressive, jumping from one power play goal in 2005-2006 to a dozen in 2009-2010.
However, in 2010-2011 Laich’s production dropped to 16 goals (four on the power play) and 16 again last season (five with the man advantage). It was not a matter of shots, either. In the three seasons in which he posted more than 20 goals – 2007-2008 through 2009-2010 – he averaged 176 shots on goal. Last season he had 191 shots on goal. His problem is that in those three 20-plus goal season he shot a combined 13.0 percent. Over the last two years, that efficiency dropped to a combined 8.0 percent (8.4 percent last season).
The 2011-2012 season marked a step back for Laich, not only in absolute terms in several categories (down in assists, total points, plus-minus, shots) but in relation to his teammates. For example, in 2010-2011 he ranked fourth on the team in total points but dropped to sixth last season. Assists: dropped from third to sixth. Plus-minus: dropped from fifth to a tie for 23rd. Game-winning goals: dropped from a tie for third to a tie for sixth. Shots: second to third; time on ice: seventh to eighth.
And it is not as if the lower rankings reflect a team improving around Laich. The Caps’ scoring was essentially unchanged from 2010-2011 (2.67 goals/game) to 2011-2012 (2.66 goals/game). Shots were down (31 to 28 per game); power play goals were down (46 to 41, season to season).
No Capital forward faced tougher competition last season at 5-on-5. In fact, of all NHL forwards playing in at least 40 games, only ten of 368 forwards faced tougher competition (numbers from behindthenet.ca). Only 16 of those 368 forwards had better Corsi values relative to quality of competition. And 315 of those forwards had better offensive zone start numbers than Laich (43.1 percent). One could make the case that whatever the reason for Laich’s depressed offensive numbers in 2010-2011, his “failure” to improve on them in 2011-2012 was a product of deployment decisions.
Was deploying him into being on ice for 82 goals against part of the plan, cuz? Only seven forwards in the league were on ice for more goals against, and none of them played for a playoff team. And even though he was 7-6-13, plus-1 in 30 games against teams that made the Eastern Conference playoffs, 3-2-5, plus-6 of that was put up against Florida. He was 4-4-8, minus-5 in 24 games against the other six playoff teams. It carried over into the playoffs. After he was 1-2-3, plus-1 in Game 3 against Boston (a game the Caps lost, by the way, 4-3) he went 1-3-4, minus-1 in his last 11 playoff games.
The Big Question… What will his role be under new head coach Adam Oates?
It is precisely his versatility that makes this an interesting question. He flourished at the offensive end under Bruce Boudreau, putting up 69 goals in 242 games over the 2007-2008 through 2009-2010 seasons. Last year he started as part of a shutdown line – the “Meat and Potatoes” line with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera – but moved around the top three lines as circumstances (mostly injuries) dictated. He can be (and was) deployed in a more defensive role; he can be deployed as a power play specialist. Concerning this latter point, the departure of Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin suggests Laich will get more opportunities here. Consider that 41 of his 116 career goals have been scored on the power play.
In the end…
Brooks Laich is not going to “wow” anyone with one number. He is not going to put up 35 goals or 80 points. He is not going to rack up 200-plus hits (as Troy Brouwer has the past two years). He will not finish the season plus-40. He will, however, do a lot of things fairly well. For example, last season he was credited with 52 takeaways but charged with only 31 giveaways. That kind of turnover ratio (1.68:1) speaks to doing things the right way (only three Caps forwards among those playing in at least 40 games had better ratios).
Perhaps for a player such as Laich, the answer to the “big question” is “all of them.” He could be a third-line shutdown center, a power play contributor, and a penalty killer. You wonder if there are enough minutes for Laich to play all three roles on a night-to-night basis. That might suggest averaging 20 or more minutes a night where he averaged 18:29 last season. That result might not be in the cards, but it seems a sure bet that if a role needs playing or a hole needs to be filled, Laich’s versatility will come in handy, even if he doesn’t wear a little plus on his chest.
Projection: 82 games, 17-28-45, plus-7
photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America