Friday, August 15, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team L

We are up to the letter “L” in our look back at the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams. This one represents each decade in the history of the franchise.

Left Wing: Brooks Laich

Regular Season (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 616 games, 125-172-297, plus-1
Playoffs (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 51 games, 9-21-30, plus-1

When the Washington Capitals embarked on the Great Selloff/Rebuild, 2003-2008, they had to part with a number of veterans, some of them with deep roots in the community and wide following among Caps fans. No Capital had a more devoted fan following than forward Peter Bondra. When he was traded on February 18, 2004 to the Ottawa Senators after spending 14 seasons with the club, fans and management, as well as the player were choked up about it.  It almost seemed an afterthought that the return was a second round draft pick in the 2005 entry draft and a prospect forward by the name of Brooks Laich.*

Ten years later, and Laich is a fixture with the club. Perhaps not to the extent Bondra was, but Laich is widely viewed as a core player for the current edition of the Capitals. Laich, a sixth round pick (193rd overall) of the Senators in the 2001 entry draft, who played four games for the Caps after the trade in 2004, came out from the other side of the 2004-2005 lockout to establish a spot on the roster immediately. With 73 games played for the Caps that season, Laich embarked on a seven-year run in which he missed a total of 22 games, only four in the last five years of that run.

In those last five years of that stretch, from 2007-2008 through 2011-2012, Laich averaged 20-27-47, plus-4 per season. In 2011-2012 he finished 11th in the voting for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward with more votes than Henrik Zetterberg or Jordan Staal.

One thing at which Laich displayed an adept touch during this span was scoring power play goals. In this five-year stretch, Laich was 38th overall in power play goals scored with 38. While this might sound like an unremarkable ranking, it was more power play goals than teammates Nicklas Backstrom (35) and Alexander Semin (34).

Then came the 2012-2013 lockout.  Like many players, Laich decided to play in Europe while the league and the players association worked out their differences.  On September 28, 2012 he signed with the Kloten Flyers in Swiss National League A.  He lasted 19 games (going 6-12-18 in the process) when a groin injury ended his further participation in Swiss hockey.   At the time it appeared as if Laich would miss a week or two at the start of the abbreviated NHL season that started in January.   Instead, it was an injury that bedeviled Laich, the club, and Capitals fans for more than a year.

Laich played in only nine regular season games and no playoff games in that abbreviated 2012-2013 season, recording only one goal and four points.  He was in the lineup to begin the 2013-2014 season, but the uncooperative nature of his injury relentlessly peeled games off his season resume – 11 games in late November and early December, three more in late December, a game in early February, single games on March 6th and 11th.  March 14th would be the last game in which Laich appeared in the 2013-2014 season, playing only 12 minutes in a 4-3 Capitals win over the Vancouver Canucks.  Laich’s season was over after 51 games.  Three days later he was in St. Louis to undergo a surgical procedure to address the injury.

At 31 years of age, Brooks Laich should be in the prime of his career with the Capitals.  Instead, there is uncertainty about his health, whether he will return to being that player he was for a five year stretch before the 2012-2013 lockout, and his role (he could play anywhere from third line center to first line left wing and spots in-between).  He is not a Peter Bondra (who is?), but he has been a very versatile player for the Caps, capable of playing a number of positions and in any situation.  That merits his getting a spot on Team L.

Center: Robert Lang

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 145 games, 51-92-143, plus-14
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 6 games, 2-1-3, plus-3

If I told you that Robert Lang ranked seventh in Washington Capitals history in points per game (minimum: 125 games played with the club), would you believe me?

Well, he doesn’t.  He ranks sixth.  Here’s the list:
  • Dennis Maruk: 1.26
  • Alex Ovechkin: 1.20
  • Jaromir Jagr: 1.06
  • Mike Gartner: 1.04
  • Nicklas Backstrom: 1.00
  • Robert Lang: 0.99

Lang is fourth in assists per game (0.63) with only Adam Oates (0.75), Backstrom (0.74), and Maruk (0.73) ahead of him.  Unfortunately, he did it for only 145 games with the Caps, the last 63 of them played for the 2003-2004 team that was sold for scrap with the idea of rebuilding from the bottom up.

Lang came to the Caps in what, in hindsight, looks like an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” strategy of roster management.  In July 2001 the Caps traded for Pittsburgh Penguin forward Jaromir Jagr and his $10.3 million salary in 2001-2002 (which the Caps promptly extended into a seven year – with an option for an eighth year – deal paying him $11 million a year).  When Jagr had a disappointing (by his standards) first season with the Caps, the club went out and looked for a center to complement him.

Lang was coming off a four-year stretch with Pittsburgh in which he recorded 94 goals and 239 points.  That he was Jagr’s teammate seemed to make him more attractive as a target.  The Caps signed him to a five-year/$25 million contract on the first day of free agency in July 2002.  His first year with the Caps was altogether what might have been expected as far as his numbers went: 23-42-69 while appearing in all 82 games.  That was fine as far as it went, but it did not have the added benefit of improving Jagr’s production, who actually saw a drop in points (from 79 to 77) from his first season with the Caps. 

The following season, Lang was better.  The team, unfortunately, was not.  Washington won two games in October, five in November, and four in December.  Their season was going nowhere.  Meanwhile, Lang was putting up big numbers: nine points (10 games) in October, 22 points (in 14 games, in all of which he recorded points) in November,  nine points (in 14 games) in December.

With the Caps about to embark on a clearance sale of epic proportions, there was the matter of what to do with Lang.  He was at or near the top of the points race.  He was their most productive, and thus most marketable asset. 

The Caps pulled the trigger on a trade on February 27th, with Lang leading the league in points (74 in 63 games).  Washington traded Lang to the Detroit Red Wings for a prospect forward (Tomas Fleischmann), a first round pick in the 2004 entry draft, and a fourth round pick in the 2006 entry draft.

The Red Wings might have been congratulating themselves on not having to part with a roster player in a trade for the league’s leading scorer.  However just four games into his new setting, Lang suffered a rib injury.  He played in only six of the Wings’ last 18 games, going 1-4-5.  The Caps would use their first round draft pick in 2004 to select Mike Green.

He played two more seasons with Detroit, then signed with Chicago as a free agent.  After one season with the Blackhawks, Lang was traded to Montreal for a second round draft pick.  A year later he signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes , the 2009-2010 being his last season in the NHL. 

It took Robert Lang a while to find his scoring groove.  Parts of four seasons in Los Angeles, a few games in Boston, and his early work in Pittsburgh gave little evidence that the seventh round pick of the 1990 entry draft (by the Kings) was going to be a scorer.  But he did find that scoring groove in his later years in Pittsburgh that started the most productive phase of his career, one that included his brief stay in Washington. 

Robert Lang, like Geoff Courtnall a decade before him, was a player traded at the pinnacle of his career due to circumstances (although the circumstances in Lang’s case were not of his doing).  Those circumstances, as was the case with Courtnall, cut short what might have been a long and productive career with the Capitals.  As it was, his performance in his brief stay in Washington still gets him a seat on the Team L bus.

Right Wing: Craig Laughlin

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 428 games, 110-173-283, plus-22
Playoffs (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 27 games, 6-4-10, even

Washington Capitals fans of current vintage know Craig Laughlin only as the smart (if occasionally goofy) sidekick to Joe Beninati in Capitals television broadcasts.  His Canadian-accented nasally voice is instantly recognizable (and no doubt endearing to Caps fans).  What fans of today’s team might not realize is that Laughlin was part of one of the biggest trades, if not the biggest trade in team history.

In July 1982 the Washington Capitals were on the brink of being moved or dissolved.  A “Save the Caps” campaign was begun, and then owner Abe Pollin decided in late August to keep the team in Washington   A week later, the team named David Poile as general manager.  Only 32 years old at the time, he jumped into the job with both feet. 

Barely a week after he was named general manager, Poile trade Ryan Walter and Rick Green – one who was once a second overall draft pick (Walter), the other a first overall draft pick (Green) – to Montreal for Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, and a former 10th round draft pick of the Canadiens who just wrapped up his rookie season in the NHL: Craig Laughlin.

Laughlin fit right in.  It was not so much his scoring, although that part of his game seemed quite underrated (he finished seventh on the club in scoring in his first season with the Caps, his first full season in the NHL).  He was a hardworking, tight checking sort who harassed players all over the ice.  He would eventually be teamed with Alan Haworth and Greg Adams to become the “Plumbers Line” for their hardworking style of play (and with a nod to the “Plumbers” of the Nixon administration, being a DC team and all).

In Laughlin’s five full seasons in Washington he was one of only five players to record at least 100 goals (he had 105), and he was fourth overall in points over those years (273), behind only Mike Gartner , Bobby Carpenter, and Dave Christian.  Laughlin was third among the Caps over those five seasons in power play goals (38), trailing only Gartner and Carpenter.  He was also remarkably durable over those seasons, missing a total of only 12 games.

In the 1987-1988 season, Laughlin’s production withered, no doubt a product of the effects of knee injury he suffered in the previous spring’s playoff series against the New York Islanders.  He scored two goals in the Caps’ second game of the season, and then he went his next 21 games with just one goal to show for it.  Things did not improve.  Finally, on February 9th, with Laughlin stuck at five goals and ten points in 40 games, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for Grant Ledyard.  He played out that season with the Kings, then signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for the 1988-1989 season that would be his last in the NHL.  He played one more season, that with EV Landshut in West Germany before leaving the game at the age of 32 after the 1989-1990 season.

Out of lemons come lemonade, and Laughlin found a recipe for that when he was injured in the Islander playoff series in 1987, getting the broadcasting bug.   That is how most Caps fans probably know and remember him today.  But on some of the best teams in franchise history, Laughlin was a vital element.  He deserves to skate on the right side of Team L.

Defense: Rod Langway

Regular Season (with Capitals): 11 seasons, 726 games, 25-177-202, plus-117
Playoffs (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 78 games, 2-16-18, plus-2

In the first 29 years in which the Norris Trophy was awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman, four defensemen won the award in at least two consecutive years – Doug Harvey, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Orr, and Denis Potvin.  When Rod Langway won the award for the second consecutive year in 1984, he became the fifth defenseman in NHL history to accomplish this feat.

What made Langway’s achievement more impressive is that looking at the post-expansion era of the NHL and the defensemen who won the award at least twice – Orr, Potvin, and Larry Robinson – all of them recorded at least 11 goals in their trophy-winning years, and with the exception of Orr’s first trophy win in 1968, all of them recorded at least 64 points.  In Langway’s two wins he recorded a total of 12 goals and 65 points.

Langway was a defensive defenseman in an extraordinary sense.  That was not all.  He might be the single most important player in franchise history.  The means by which he came to the Caps was by the trade described above.  The Caps were in jeopardy of folding or moving, and shortly after owner Abe Pollin decided to keep the team in Washington, just-hired general manager David Poile made the trade that brought Langway to Washington.

Given the Capitals’ history of poor defense (in their first eight seasons they allowed 4.30 goals per game while the league average was 3.54), Langway was arguably the centerpiece of the trade.  Although he was still only 25 years with four years of NHL experience with the Montreal Canadiens, he finished in the top ten in Norris Trophy voting in each of his last two seasons with the Canadiens, and he was a member of a Stanley Cup winning team in Montreal in 1979.

What he was not was a scorer.  In 11 seasons with the Capitals, Langway never hit the ten-goal mark (he only scored a total of 25 in 11 seasons) and never recorded as many as 35 points in a season.  Nevertheless, he was a “plus” player in each of his first ten seasons in Washington (averaging plus-13).  He might not have been scoring, but opponents weren’t either.

The low scoring output did not lessen the appreciation for his game.  He was a first team all-star twice with the Caps, a second team all-star once, and received all-star team votes in each of his first seven seasons in Washington overall.  In addition to the two Norris Trophies he won, he finished in the top-five on two other occasions.  He finished in the top-five in Hart Trophy voting as the league’s most valuable player three times.

He was also durable, especially given his physical style of play.  In his first seven seasons in Washington, Langway missed only 35 games (five per season).  There was, however, a post-season injury he suffered that had significant impacts on the Capitals’ fortunes.  After a thrilling seven-game win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 1988 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps faced the New Jersey Devils in the second round.  Late in the third period of Game 1, what would be a 3-1 Capitals win, Langway and the Devils’ Pat Verbeek were tangled up behind the Capitals’ net.  As Verbeek described it, “I was trying to prevent him from cutting back on me.  I stuck my leg out to keep him from getting position on me.  The toe of my skate cut him in the back of the calf…”  The skate left a three-inch cut to the back of Langway’s leg, and he headed to the bench immediately, trailing blood on the ice all the way.  He was treated, but he had to wear an immobilizing cast for 7-10 days, leaving him unavailable to the Caps for the duration of the series.  The Caps promptly lost Games 2 and 3 by a combined 15-6 margin (the Devils enjoyed 20 power plays over those two games), and the Caps lost the series to New Jersey in seven games.

Langway returned to play in 76 games for the Caps the following season, but the wear and tear on his body started catching up with him in the 1989-1990 season.  He played in only 58 games that season and did not record a goal (strangely, the only season in his career to that point in which he did not score a goal).  In 1990-1991 it was 56 games played.  He rebounded to play in 64 games the next season and record 13 points (his highest point total in three years), but he was not the dominating defenseman of the mid-1980’s.

In early November of the 1992-1993 season, Langway and general manager David Poile met, Poile asking Langway to assume a part-time role with the club.  He played in only 21 games that season, finishing with no points and a minus-13.  The manner in which the game evolved around him was reflected by the fact that in that 1992-1993 season, three other Capitals defensemen – Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, and Sylvain Cote – finished with 20 or more goals.

That was Langway’s last season in the NHL.  After sitting out the 1993-1994 season, he played briefly with the Richmond Renegades of the ECHL, then spent a season with the San Francisco Spiders of the IHL.  In 1997-1998 Langway appeared in ten games for the Providence Bruins of the AHL to close out his professional resume.

Former teammate Craig Laughlin said of Langway, “[He] was the same as Wayne Gretzky, but in a defensive mode… He killed the penalties with the best of them. The way he pinned a guy to the boards…it’s an art. He doesn’t let the guy back into the play.”  Unfortunately, there was no statistic, advanced or otherwise, available back then to reflect that skill.  But to the extent one could trust their eyes, when Langway checked an opponent, he stayed checked.  Rare was the battle along the boards he lost; he was an expert at neutralizing any advance from that spot on the ice.  He was, as we noted above, more than that.  He might be the most consequential Capital in team history, in no small part the reason we still have hockey in Washington.  Team L has its captain and its stopper in Rod Langway.

Defense: Yvon Labre

Regular Season (with Capitals): 7 seasons, 334 games, 12-84-96, minus-89
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

If there has been a hockey player in NHL history to have played under more adversity than Yvon Labre, we’d like to meet him.  Then again, maybe not.  Although he did not play in every game for the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins over his nine year career, the teams on which he played had a combined record of 186-412-118.  If you were to convert that to an 82-game season, it’s a record of 21-47-14.

It started for Labre in 1969 when he was taken in the fourth round (38th overall) by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1969 amateur draft.  After a year with the Baltimore Clippers of the AHL, he made the jump to the NHL in 1970-1971, playing in 21 games for the Penguins.  After spending all of two seasons in the minors with the Hershey Bears, Labre saw limited NHL action in the 1973-1974 season – 16 games with Pittsburgh. 

Whatever the Penguins saw in Labre, they were not sufficiently impressed to protect him from exposure in the expansion draft of June 1974.  It was there that his career with the Caps began.  He dressed for 76 games with the Caps in his first full NHL season, and laboring for the worst team in NHL history (8-67-5), he finished fourth on the club (first among defensemen) in scoring with 27 points.  He also led the team in penalty minutes by a wide margin – 182 minutes to Mike Bloom’s 84.

Labre played in all 80 games the following season, once more topping 20 points (2-20-22).  That, however, might have been the pinnacle of his Caps’ career.  Knee problems started to eat into his playing time.  He would play in only 178 of 400 games over the next five seasons, but he was still as tough a player (428 penalty minutes in those 178 games) as he was in those first two seasons with the club.

Unfortunately, his hard work and dedication was not rewarded.  In none of his seven seasons with the Capitals did they make the playoffs, only twice did they win more than 25 games.

In 1980-1981 injuries limited Labre to 25 games.  It would be his last in the NHL.  Still, he would be the last of the inaugural 1974-1975 team to skate for the club.   His effort in the face of misfortune was not unappreciated.  In November 1981 Labre had his number “7” retired by the club, the first of four numbers to be retired by the Caps.  The team would not retire another number for more than 16 years.

Stars and winners get a lot of ink and a lot of accolades.  But in his own way, Yvon Labre was both for this franchise, the embodiment of what being a professional means.  He has a special place on Team L.

Goaltender: Mike Liut

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 64 games, 27-27-5, 3.51, .871
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 11 games, 4-5, 3.46, .874

By the time Mike Liut pulled on a Capitals sweater he already built a resume as one of the top goalies in the league, having won 267 games over 12-plus seasons with the St. Louis Blues and Hartford Whalers.  His resume included a first team all-star berth, a second-team all-star spot, a Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award) as the league’s outstanding player, and six top-ten finishes in the voting for the Vezina Trophy.  In 1981 he finished second to Wayne Gretzky for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

He arrived in Washington in March 1990 in a trade that sent Yvon Corriveau to Hartford.  He had a fine home stretch that season for the Caps in terms of his own play (2.13 goal against average, .922 save percentage), although he didn’t have much luck, a 4-4-0 record in eight appearances.  He matched that 4-4 record in the post season as the Caps advanced to the conference final for the first time in franchise history.

Things took a bumpy road after that for Liut.  In 1990-1991 he appeared in 35 games but had just a 13-16-3 record.  His 3.73 goals against average was among the worst of his career.  Things were not any better the following season.  Stubborn back problems limited him to 21 appearances in which he was 10-7-2 with a 3.74 goals against average.  His last appearance in that 1991-1992 season was on February 4th against the Buffalo Sabres, one in which he allowed seven goals on 43 shots.  It was the second time in five appearances in which he allowed seven goals and it completed a consecutive games total of 12 goals on 67 shots.  He might have been willing, but his body was betraying him.  It was his last season in the NHL.

Mike Liut came to the Caps to provide a measure of stability and steady production in goal that seemed lacking with the club.  It was often said that it was goaltending that failed the Caps in the end in the 1980’s when they never could seem to get over the hump of the first or second round of the playoffs.  Liut might have provided that – he did play on that first ever conference finals club – but physically the tank was running low.  Still, he did make contributions to those clubs of the early 1990s and gets the call in goal for Team L.

Team L certainly has both an old school and a new school look to it, reaching back to the early days of the franchise and some of its best days while adding some punch from teams of more recent vintage.  There is a grittiness and toughness about this team that others would find difficult to play against.  They would, in their own way, be pretty entertaining to watch.

* In one of the more bizarre turns of this tale, Bondra was offered a contract in the late summer of 2005 by the Capitals after his contract with the Senators (originally signed as a Capital) ran out after the 2003-2004 season. The team was reported to have offered Bondra a one-year deal at $1.5 million; Bondra countered with a proposal for an additional year and more money.  The teams were not able to agree on terms of a deal, and Bondra signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Thrashers.