Thursday, September 18, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

An old man passed me on the street today;
I thought I knew him but I couldn't say.
I stopped to think if I could place his frame.
When he tipped his hat I knew his name.

Hello old friend,
It's really good to see you once again.
Hello old friend,
It's really good to see you once again.

-- Eric Clapton

It only seems like forever since Brooks Laich played a full season in the NHL, and he is hardly an old man, but he is 15th on the all-time list of games played in Washington Capitals franchise history (616), second among active players on the club to Alex Ovechkin (679).  He would be the active leader in games played had he not missed 70 of 130 games over the past two seasons.

And that is the issue for this season.  Despite repeated comments over time that were variations on a “feeling good” theme, there is the fact that Laich has not played a full season of NHL hockey since 2011-2012.

Last season Laich managed 51 games of action, but it was a matter of skating on one and a half legs.  That was the product of lingering groin problems that seemed to stem from an injury he sustained while playing in Switzerland during the 2012 NHL lockout.  That he led the team in shorthanded ice time per game, situations that might put even greater stress on a wonky groin, and added another 1:20 per game on the power play speaks to his grit and determination, or his stubbornness over the extent of his injury, depending on your point of view.

His performance level since his injury is down form that of his first seven full seasons with the Caps.  Over those first seven seasons, Laich’s scoring line per 82 games was 17-24-41.  In 60 games over two seasons since he was injured it is 14-16-31, perhaps not as bad as one might have expected.  When one accounts for the fact that it was his power play production that was down substantially, from 6-6-12 per 82 games in his first seven full seasons to 2-5-7 per 82 games over the last two seasons, it further suggests a level of grit (or stubbornness) that permitted him to function at something approaching a career level, at least offensively, at even strength.

Fearless’ Take…

In 2011-2012, the last healthy season Brooks Laich had, he was one of 12 forwards in the NHL playing in at least 50 games who had at least 13 minutes of even strength ice time a game, and at least two minutes of both power play and shorthanded ice time a game.  That speaks to the versatility Laich possesses and that can be valuable to this team in 2014-2015. 

Given the presence of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward (both right-handed shots) in the middle of the power play, it seems unlikely that the left-handed shooting Laich would get that kind of man advantage ice time, but this is a team that needs all the help it can get killing penalties.  Among forwards playing in at least 50 games in 2011-2012 Laich ranked 20th in 4-on-5 ice time per 60 minutes.

It might be at even strength, though, where Laich’s presence might be felt most.  Looking back again at that last healthy season, Laich had the second lowest share of offensive zone starts among 11 Caps forwards playing in at least 50 games (43.1 percent).  However, he has a higher share of offensive zone finishes, so he as least moved the tilt a little less in the defensive zone direction, and his team rank in goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes outperformed his offensive zone start shares, implying a certain effectiveness in dealing with tough geography on the ice.

Cheerless’ Take…

That all sounds real nice, Fearless, but he’s 31 years old, has more than 650 games of regular season and playoff experience, and has tried to skate through an injury that still took 70 of 130 games the last two seasons off his resume.  Is it reasonable to think, even if he is anything close to healthy, for him to return to that 2011-2012 version?   Maybe by winter or spring, but in October?

And, it’s a good thing he is versatile, because there is no position that is marked in pen with his name on it.  He could be the first line left wing.  He could be the second line left wing.  He could be the second line or third line center.

Fearless kept comparing Laich to his last healthy season in 2011-2012.  Fine, but that year was two years removed from the last of his career best three years, from 2007-2008 through 2009-2010, when he scored 69 goals and only missed four games.  Four seasons have passed since then.  Any chance he returns to that level of production?

The Big Question… Where will Brooks Laich play?

It is not an urgent question in October, but it might be nice if Brooks Laich had a position to call his own at some point this season.  For one thing, it would signal his being healthy in fact and not just in press releases.  For another it would signal stability across the rest of the forward lines.  The one place where Laich might be the first option is at third line center.  With him in this position, it is an indicator that the Evgeny Kuznetsov experiment at second line center is working.  One might envision such a lineup as having Alex Ovechkin on the left side, Nicklas Backstrom in the middle, and perhaps Eric Fehr on the right side of the top line.  Kuznetsov might be centering Marcus Johansson on the left and Troy Brouwer on the right on the second line.  Laich would be centering Jason Chimera on his left and Joel Ward on his right on the third line.  If Laich is moving around the forward lines, it could be a sign that other things are not working as well as hoped.

In the end…

Although Brooks Laich might feel like he’s five-years old again, he is one of the core players on whom the Caps will be depending for a solid year to get them back into the post-season.  On a team that struggled in 5-on-5 play and penalty killing, Laich will be expected to provide the means to improve in those areas.  It is not the youthful effervescence on which the Capitals will be relying, but the experience earned as the longest tenured Capital in continuous service.  His window, like that of the Caps, is still open a bit.

Projection: 72 games, 14-17-31, plus-2

Photo: Rob Grabowski-USA Today Sports

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