By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009
On the ice, Brooks Laich is the Washington Capitals' second-line left wing and an integral part of their prolific power play. Off the ice, he's an emerging leader in the locker room and the team's representative in the NHL Players' Association.
If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. But if there's anyone on the team who can handle so much responsibility, it's Laich, whose maturation over the past three seasons has closely mirrored the Capitals'.
The latest evidence that Laich and the Capitals are ready for prime time came Thursday in Boston. Laich matched a career high for goals with two and had an assist to help Washington open the season with a thorough 4-1 victory over the Bruins.
It was quite a start for the player and the team, both of whom are faced with intense expectations after enjoying breakout seasons a year ago. Laich amassed a career-high 23 goals and 30 assists last season, and with another strong performance, can join Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin as the only Capitals since the lockout to score 21 or more goals in three consecutive seasons.
"He puts himself in position to score goals, and he's willing to pay the price to score goals," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "So I think he's going to continue to do so. I don't think you've seen the best of Brooks Laich yet."
Washington's first and third goals at TD Garden were vintage Laich. On the first, he raced to the Bruins' net, stopped a pass from Nicklas Backstrom, then calmly backhanded the puck past goaltender Tim Thomas to put the Capitals ahead, 1-0.
"My first couple of years, I tried to rush everything so much," he said. "Now I just sit back, relax and survey the play. That's the reason for more goals."
Laich was far from finished. Early in the third period, the 26-year-old Saskatchewan native crashed the crease and jammed in a loose puck to push the Capitals' lead to 3-0.
Moments later, he added an assist on Ovechkin's second goal of the game and the Capitals were en route to an early-season statement victory over last year's top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Scoring gritty goals, though, is only a part of what makes Laich so important to the Capitals. Three of the team's most important leaders last season -- Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear -- departed via free agency over the summer. Some of that leadership will be replaced by Mike Knuble; much of the rest could come from Laich, who has long been considered future captain material.
"Brooks is Brooks," Boudreau said. "He will lead, and he leads by example. I don't think a letter on his jersey is going to make him lead more or lead less."
After the Capitals suffered a heart-wrenching loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals this past spring, Laich organized an impromptu gathering of his teammates. It began at his home, moved to a restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront and lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
"You don't make a conscious effort to say, 'I have to be a leader,' " Laich said. "Leaders come to the forefront. They do what is right for the team. I think I've got a pretty good feel for our hockey team and how we're playing, and if I feel there's something that needs to be said, I'll say it."
Laich also is the Capitals' representative on the executive board of the NHL players' union, which is navigating tumultuous times. He took over the time-consuming responsibilities from defenseman Brian Pothier midway through last season when Pothier was focused on coming back from a career-threatening concussion.
Over the summer, Laich attended NHLPA meetings in Las Vegas and Chicago. Most recently, he attended the meetings in which Paul Kelly was fired as the union's executive director.
"It was a difficult decision," Laich said. "The easiest thing would have been to just keep Paul on and keep things status quo. But we weren't happy with the status quo.
"It's a commitment, but I got involved because this is something I wanted," he added. "I made a conscious decision because I really care about the game of hockey and the direction it's taking. You can either sit back and complain, or you can get involved."
Laich figures to be more involved on the rink this season, too. Given that his goal totals have increased in each of the past three seasons, it doesn't seem so farfetched for him to approach -- or even crack -- the 30-goal plateau this winter.
"He only needs 28 more and he's got 81 more games," Boudreau said. "But a lot of things have to happen to become a 30-goal scorer, and one of them is you have to stay healthy. I hope he does it, because it would make our team better."