“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
-- George Orwell
Lost in the prodigious pile of PIMs that Washington Capitals’ forward Tom Wilson compiled last season (172, fourth in the league) was the fact that Michael Latta finished second on the club in penalty minutes (68) despite appearing in only 53 games. He was one of a dozen players last season to have appeared in fewer than 60 games and logged at least 60 minutes in penalties. He earned 40 of his 68 penalty minutes as fighting majors, the eight infractions he recorded being second on the club (to Wilson) and tied for 13th in the league. Latta also happened to be the only forward in the NHL who appeared in more than 50 games that did not record a goal last season, the only one who skated more than 425 minutes without lighting the lamp.
Latta’s presence in the lineup did not leave much of an impression. The Caps were 29-17-7 in games he played (1.23 standings points per game), 16-9-4 in games when he was out of the lineup (1.24 points per game). But it pays to dig a little deeper here. In those games in which Latta recorded ten of more minutes of ice time, the Caps were 9-0-2. And, there were the penalties. When he recorded at least five minutes of penalty time in a game, the Caps were 7-3-0 (the Caps are 9-3-0 in Latta’s career when he has five or more PIMs). The former might be a product more than a cause, his getting more than ten minutes of ice time reflecting the Caps rotating four lines more in wins than they might in losses (seven of the nine wins were by multi-goal margins).
By the time the postseason rolled around, Latta was a player whose ability to agitate and provide energy was not a commodity as prized as providing some offensive punch or defensive stopping power. He appeared in only four games (all in the first round series against the New York Islanders) and missed the last three games of the second round due to illness.
Michael Latta has one goal in 70 career games and 575 minutes of ice time. It would be fair to say he has a limited offensive skill set. That means he has to contribute in other ways. He is that “energy” player (another way of saying he plays on the edge of the rules), but he is not altogether a liability in a limited role. His top end possession numbers last season were respectable (51.0 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5), this despite a relative zone start differential of minus-2.1 percent.
The Caps do not need their fourth line to be a scoring line, but they have to get something out of it. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, only 15 forwards have played in more than 50 games in a season and recorded no goals. And it is not as if he was like one of those position players in football who never gets a snap from scrimmage except for special teams. He averaged only six seconds per game killing penalties last season. The best thing that might be said here is that Latta was playing in what was his first full season in the NHL. He was the second youngest of those 15 forwards on that “no goals” list and had the best plus-minus of any of them (plus-4). There might be some room to grow here.
The Big Question… Does Michael Latta get a sweater on a regular basis?
Latta appeared in 53 games last season, as Cheerless noted his first full season in the NHL. Is there any reason to believe he will top that number in 2015-2016? If Derek Roy makes the roster on his professional try out audition, Latta would appear to be the 13th forward. And, with a full complement of forwards as deep as it is, it is hard to see who he would replace in the lineup absent injury or utter lack of performance among the bottom-six. What’s more, the Caps took on a similar player in the off-season in Zach Sill, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguin organization. They play the same position – center – with similar size (Sill: 6’/202; Latta: 6’/209), similar experience (Sill: 83 games; Latta: 70 games), similar offensive production (Sill: 1-3-4; Latta: 1-9-10), similar penalty minutes (Sill: 1.16/game; Latta: 1.14/game), and similar salary cap burdens (both at $575,000/year). We suspect Latta has the inside position on that 13th forward spot (or 12th, if Derek Roy does not make the roster), but he will be getting only intermittent duty this season, especially after the forward ranks are made whole when Nicklas Backstrom returns full time to the lineup.
In the end…
Michael Latta is the last remnant of the trade in what was the Filip Forsberg-for-Martin Erat trade in 2013. The trade is, and will be for quite some time, a sore spot among Capitals fans. However, Latta is the kind of player one instinctively roots for. He does not play as if he takes the sweater for granted, bringing a genuine energy to the ice when called upon, as opposed to the manufactured “energy” that is too often synonymous for “fighting.”
However, his skill set is, at this point in his career, limited. He will not turn 25 years of age until next May, so there is that hope that there is some filling out of his game. But on a team that looks built to win in the near term, getting ice time will be a chore. When he does, though, he’ll help his teammates rest easier for the intensity he brings to the ice.
Projection: 30 games, 1-3-4, plus-1
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America