Theme: “The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars”
-- Johnny Cash
With 1:26 gone in an October 26, 2005 game against the Buffalo Sabres, Brooks Laich took to the ice for the Washington Capitals to take a faceoff against the Sabres’ Tim Connolly (Laich won it). That started a string of 483 games in which Laich would appear 470 times. He four of those games late in the 2009-2010 season when he suffered a freak cheekbone injury when a puck shot by John Carlson in practice struck the crossbar of the goal, then struck Laich.
At the time, then teammate Mike Knuble quipped, "He's a young buck; he isn't cut up too much yet. You don't have a career in the NHL until you break your face once." Well, Brooks Laich is not so much a “young buck” anymore (he turned 30 in June), and the threat of having his face broken was the least of his problems in the 2012-2013.
With the NHL having locked out its players to start the season, Laich caught on with the Kloten Flyers in Swtizerland. On November 16th, in an 8-0 win over the SCL Tigers, Laich injured his groin. It was an injury that would derail Laich’s entire season. He could not answer the bell to start the late-starting NHL season and did not make his first appearance until Game 29 of the 48-game regular season for the Caps.
Laich played in nine consecutive games, getting progressively more ice time over the first seven games he played (from 12:51 in his first game to 20:28 in his seventh game). Then, in his eighth game, he skated 17:02 followed by a 14 minute effort in his ninth game on April 4th. In that last game, Laich was on pace to finish with perhaps 16 minutes of ice time, but after finishing a shift at the 10:34 mark of the third period, he would not return to the ice in what would end in a 2-1 shootout win for the Caps. It was the last time Laich skated for the season.
Despite having sports hernia surgery that might have made him available for a second round playoff matchup (one that did not materialize for the Caps), it was a lost season for the nine-year veteran – 19 games with Kloten, where he was 6-12-18, and nine games with the Caps (none in the playoffs), where he finished with one goal and four points. And now, with his having left the ice ten minutes into his first training camp practice with what was described as a hip flexor injury, one might be left to wonder if the iron man of his first seven full seasons with the Caps (appearing in more than 97 percent of the Caps’ games) can return to that level of reliability.
When he was growing up in Canada, Brooks Laich played baseball as a pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. You won’t find three more different positions on the diamond. That sort of versatility has become a hallmark of his game as a hockey player. He can play any forward position and do it, at least on a fill-in basis, on any of the top three lines. In his seven full seasons with the Caps ending with the 2011-2012 season he averaged more than two minutes of ice time per game on both the power play and on the penalty kill. With that versatility has come production. Although his goal scoring dipped the last two seasons from a career high 25 goals in 2009-2010, he finished with more than 15 goals in each of the last five seasons ending in 2011-2012. Among current Capitals, only Alex Ovechkin has more goals scored than the 101 scored by Laich in those five seasons (Nicklas Backstrom also has 101, and the departed Alexander Semin had 149).
A lot of that “production,” cuz, was because he was scoring power play goals in those 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons. Of the 48 goals he had in those two seasons, 21 of them came on the power play. If you look at his even strength goals over that five-year stretch you looked at, he goes: 11, 13, 12, 11, 10. Consistent, yeah, but not what you’d call high volume. Is he going to get enough time as a third line left wing or enough power play time to be a 20-goal scorer again? Is he going to be healthy enough to play in enough games to get to 15?
The Big Question… What is Brooks Laich’s role on this team?
The easy question to ask here would have been whether he would be restored to good health. We do not pretend to having special insights into anyone’s future health. But even absent that talent, we are left with the matter of Brooks Laich still having blanks to be filled in by the coaching staff, relative to those players who played a full season last year. Laich’s versatility makes him the kind of player you can plug in at any position on any of the top three forward lines. Conversely, it means he doesn’t have a home. Until Mikahil Grabovski was signed, he was going to be the second line center. After Grabovski was signed, he was penciled in as the third wing left wing. If, say, Mathieu Perreault stumbles, he could be the third line center. Intuitively, having a consistent, well-defined role provides the stability one might like to have to be comfortable and productive, whatever that role might be. Perhaps Laich does not need that kind of continuity, but that’s what makes it the big question, too.
In the end…
If you are the hopeful and confident sort of Capitals fan, one might think that Brooks Laich would appeal to the mad scientist in Adam Oates. Laich is versatile enough as to be something of a collection of raw materials and talents that Oates might deploy in a variety of ways. Here is an example. Last year Laich had a six-year streak in which he scored at least one shorthanded goal come to an end. Do you know how many players had a shorthanded goal in each of the six seasons from 2006-2007 through 2011-2012? Eight. In addition to Laich: Antoine Vermette, Anze Kopitar, Chad LaRose, Mike Richards, Radek Dvorak, Rene Bourque, and Tomas Plekanec.
Over those same six seasons Laich had 40 power play goals, making him one of only ten players with at least nine shorthanded goals and at least 40 power play goals over that period. The other nine include: Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Marian Hossa, Martin St. Louis, Jeff Carter, Patrick Sharp, Anze Kopitar, Daniel Alfredsson, and Ryan Kesler. That’s not bad company to keep.
In this formulation, Laich is something of the secret weapon Adam Oates can deploy, but we are still left with that sense of uncertainty that losing almost an entire season to injury engenders. We will just have to see if the beast can be released from those frail and fragile bars that undid his 2013 season.
Projection: 72 games, 14-21-35, plus-4
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America