Capitals have difficult season ahead
Capitals general manager George McPhee insisted last month that Brooks Laich could capably take over as his team’s second line center this coming season.
That plan has plenty of skeptics. Laich, after all, isn’t your prototypical playmaking center in the mold of the departed Mike Ribeiro. His best offensive seasons came on the wing with 53, 59 and 48 points between 2008-09 and 2010-11. Is that good enough on a team that still believes it’s a Stanley Cup contender?
There is also the question of health. Plenty of players have rebounded from groin surgery. Laich insists he did not, as multiple media outlets reported last spring, have a sports hernia procedure. But whatever the injury, it certainly derailed his season. He appeared in just nine of 48 games and didn’t have time to heal before the Caps were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round.
That stung a player who has long prided himself on his ability to play through and with pain. Laich missed four games total over a five-year period. That’s it. But at age 30 now, will Laich have a smooth rebound from his first major injury? Few players work harder to stay in condition off the ice, but until the Caps see him back on the ice at full strength during training camp there will be concerns.
Looking at the current roster, you would assume Laich would center right wing Troy Brouwer, who had a career-year last season with 19 goals in just 47 games, and left wing Martin Erat, who himself never really showed Washington what he can do when healthy. A knee injury in his second game with the team after an April 3 trade hampered Erat the rest of the way – though he missed only three games.
Is that trio, with Laich running the show, good enough to drive possession? Is Laich skilled enough to get Brouwer and Erat the puck in prime scoring positions? Can he find his own scoring touch again? Laich’s point totals have dropped three consecutive seasons.
All are legitimate questions. Few players have been more versatile for the Caps over the last eight years. Laich has been a mainstay on the power play, the penalty kill, in a top-six role or on the third line, at wing and sometimes at center. One former coach once compared him to a Swiss Army knife.
But if Washington hopes to make the playoffs in the difficult Metropolitan Division, it is betting a lot on Laich making the biggest adjustment of his career. If he pulls it off then McPhee can save his remaining cap space to patch a hole elsewhere on the roster. Maybe a top-four defenseman becomes expendable at some point during the season. But if Laich can’t fill that role at a high level then that troublesome hole at second-line center opens once more and the Caps are left searching again.