“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
At the risk of taking Emerson a bit too literally, it is probably fitting that Michael Latta wears red in his occupation as a hockey player. He was not the headline player in the trade that sent Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat, but he is the player coming from Nashville who remains with the club.
The role he seems likely to play with the Caps is the epitome of the “energy player.” To the extent he plays, it will be confined almost entirely to fourth line minutes. He will agitate, disrupt, annoy, aggravate, and exasperate (434 penalty minutes in 183 career regular season AHL games). He will provoke (37 fights in those 183 career regular season AHL games).
Yes, red seems to be an appropriate color to wear as a reflection of his spirit.
That said, the extent to which he passes Jay Beagle on the depth chart as fourth line center is going to hinge at least as much on his performance numbers. Twice he has posted 14-goal seasons in the AHL, both times doing so in fewer than 55 games. Then again, Jay Beagle had 19 and 16 goal seasons with Hershey with game totals in each season in the mid 60’s.
The Caps were 9-6-2 in the 17 games in which Latta played last year. Records like that aren’t attributable to the difference making capabilities of a fourth line center, but he was on ice for only five goals against in those 17 games, too, four at even strength. He was 52.2 percent on draws. He was charged with just two giveaways in 131 minutes of ice time. He committed only one minor penalty. He was not what you would call a liability out there.
Twice in 17 games he played more than 10 minutes. He averaged less than eight minutes a game. The Caps were 5-4-2 in games in which he played over seven minutes. There is just so much a guy playing that little ice time can do to influence an outcome for the better.
The Big Question… Is Michael Latta a diamond in the rough?
Michael Latta is only 23 years old as he heads into the upcoming season, so it is still difficult to project just what his upside is. Just keep in mind that he was taken in the 2009 draft ahead of Cody Eakin (72nd overall; Eakin was taken 85th), and Caps fans probably still remember Eakin, a prospect traded with a draft pick for Mike Ribeiro back in June 2012. We cannot say with much conviction that Latta is going to become the scoring forward that appears to be slotted for in Dallas, but he might have more upside than Jay Beagle, which is not to denigrate Beagle. Latta just has not yet had much playing time, and he seems likely to make a battle out of the fourth line center position.
In the end…
To us, Michael Latta impresses us in his limited exposure to date with the Caps as a stockier version of former Capitals forward Matt Bradley. He does not seem to be the sort to contribute a lot at the offensive end, but he might pot the occasional goal. He plays at a high energy level. He is not shy about settling matters on the ice on his own (two fights in 17 games with the Caps, 11 in 52 games at Hershey last season). He has not yet revealed any particular liabilities on defense, although 17 games is not much to go on in that regard.
Michael Latta is the last remnant of the Forsberg-Erat trade and the end of a line in the legacy of the selection of Scott Stevens in the 1982 draft (the “Brendan Witt/Filip Forsberg” line in this chart). Latta represents the last active line in that legacy. Caps fans will be hoping it does not end for a while yet.
Projection: 26 games, 1-5-6, even
Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images