When Mike Ribeiro signed with the Phoenix Coyotes on July 5 it left an all too familiar question mark in the middle of the Capitals‘ lineup. Who will serve as second-line center?
Over the past four years Washington has used eight players, with varying levels of success and longevity, in the role. The Capitals won’t be bringing in a new contestant for ‘As the Second Line Turns’ next season, but rather plan to go back to a familiar one in Brooks Laich.
“We had him there in the playoffs a couple of years ago, liked it a lot,” General Manager George McPhee said Monday. “He’s a natural center, grew up playing center and we think it’s time to play him there.”
Laich, 30, missed all but nine games last year with a lingering groin injury but is expected to be ready for training camp. He doesn’t have Ribeiro’s slick playmaking abilities but, if he can stay healthy, Laich should help make for a better two-way unit with scoring potential that isn’t a liability in its own end.
McPhee’s naming of Laich as the player Washington wants to anchor the second line comes after several weeks of uncertainty.
While unlikely, the team didn’t rule out the possibility of bringing back Ribeiro until he signed a four-year, $22 million deal with the Coyotes. Last month Coach Adam Oates met with Vincent Lecavalier, who agreed to a five-year, $22.5 million deal with the Flyers. Interest is one thing, but the Capitals weren’t willing to commit to long-term deals with either 33-year-old and it wasn’t a challenge for Ribeiro or Lecavalier to meet their requests elsewhere.
With high demand for the few elite centers on the free agent market, McPhee kept the status quo. Laich has frequently lined up on left wing, but is a natural center and has served as the pivot on both the second and third lines in recent seasons. Given Laich’s familiarity with the position and how his style of play generally suits Oates’s north-south style, McPhee believes the transition should work well.
“He gives you the size and speed you’re looking for, the good two-way play you’re looking for, good faceoffs. We want to play a better pace game we want more speed and we think he’s capable of it,” McPhee said. “We don’t see any real difference in terms of ability to play between a Brooks and — if you look around the league — a Mike Fisher in Nashville or Mike Richards in L.A. or David Backes in St. Louis. Same kind of players in terms of ability to play.”
Laich’s injuries prevented anyone from getting a good look at precisely how the veteran forward works within Oates’s system. But in the handful of games he was in the lineup, Laich was able to drive the chip-and-chase support game well. Oates is eager to have a completely healthy Laich at his disposal and concurred that the Saskatchewan can handle the important spot on the depth chart.
“No question in my mind he can do that job,” Oates said. “He skates really well, he’s a top NHL player. We obviously missed him a lot of the year and, for me, I just want to see him healthy.”