Spaced out over the next few weeks, we will feature end-of-season profiles for every player on the Washington Capitals, a year-in-review of sorts looking at their statistics, story lines and such. The full list of published pieces can be found at the end.
Next, forward Brooks Laich.
The era under his new head coach began with forward Brooks Laich hitching up his legs at Verizon Center, a demonstration of his healing groin, and the first year ended in similar show-and-tell fashion at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington. One year ago, attending Barry Trotz’s introductory news conference, Laich considered himself pain-free, but still needed time to regain strength and retrain his muscles. This stunted his training schedule from the start, and he spent most of the summer skating without pucks, ensuring his legs were strong enough to withstand an 11th NHL season.
Now, on a Friday afternoon in mid-May, Laich again hopped around during an interview, this time flaunting full health. Laich missed 16 games during the regular season, mostly the product of a shoulder injury from which he mistakenly tried rushing back, but suffered no further groin issues, which had made him miss all but 60 of 130 possible games between 2012-13 and 2013-14.
And so, even after a disappointing offensive season, when Laich endured a 26-game goal drought, averaged his lowest time on ice since 2007-08, spent a significant chunk of the year on the fourth line and even endured an early-March scratch on the road in Columbus, the 31-year-old again sought optimism in how his body withstood the grind.
“Last couple years I’ve been concerned about health and so I’ve been focusing on rehab, and a lot of my days were spent skating without pucks to try and make sure my legs were there and this year I don’t have to worry about my legs being there,” Laich said. “I can do stick drills, I can do puck drills, I can do hands drills, I can shoot more pucks, more stuff that’s going to help me out offensively, rather than just being able to skate. At the time, that’s what I needed to do, and this summer, that’s why I’m so excited already for the summer to improve my game, not just my skating.”
With two more seasons left on a contract annually worth $4.5 million against the salary cap, third-highest among Capitals forwards, Laich knew his offense needed to improve, though he served as one of Washington’s most reliable penalty-killers. His even-strength shot attempt rate finished at a shade below 50 percent, and that goal drought ended in a blowout win over Buffalo, but Laich also notched only two postseason points, none after Game 5 against the Islanders.
It was still a more productive season than the injury-plagued 2012-13 and 2013-14 years, but still not up to the standard Laich set for himself when he notched 40 points in four straight seasons between 2008 and 2012.
“I don’t know if there’s an answer,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I don’t think he’s happy with the year he had. I had a year-end meeting with him, and we want the two-way Brooks Laich playing, contributing offensively, scoring goals, making plays and the defensive part. I think he did a good job on the PK and defensive role, but I think we need more out of him to be a successful team.”
MacLellan expressed a similar sentiment before the season, when he declared that “a non-healthy Brooks Laich hurts our chances.” And when injury struck Laich on Oct. 18 against Florida, the urge to play through pain wound up restricting his long-term rehabilitation. Laich missed seven straight games after colliding with Shawn Thornton, returned for a winless streak-snapping win in Chicago and hurt himself again, sitting on injured reserve until just after Thanksgiving.
“You do have a new general manager and you do have a new have a head coach and assistant coaches and you want to make an impression on them,” Laich said. “You want to impress them with the way that you can play the game.
“After the injury, I felt like I was trying to play catchup a little bit, and never really hit my stride as well as I would’ve liked to, but had some great stretches in the year where I thought I played very good hockey, and certainly this summer going into the offseason healthy, looking forward to a great summer and not having to do rehab, and preparing to have my best season as a pro next year.”