The most significant detail of forward Michael Latta’s otherwise uneventful rookie NHL season, when he scored zero goals and notched six assists over 53 games on the fourth line, came away from the rink, captured by cameras and symbolized by an empty fridge. He and roommate Tom Wilson became the breakout stars of Epix’s “Road to the Winter Classic” series, shown riding to the rink with an expired inspection sticker, discussing how pickles were made over dinner in Columbus and, in the first episode, touring the crew through their Arlington pad.
“It’s a really, really nice apartment, but we don’t have, like, really nice things,” Wilson said, revealing a refrigerator containing three bottles of Costco ketchup and little else. “We’re young and it’s fun to be young for a while. You don’t want to grow up too fast.”
In a way, this was the mantra of Latta, the remaining return from the Filip Forsberg trade, along with Wilson, the elder member of a Bash Brothers-like duo. He averaged only 8 minutes 23 seconds during the 2014-15 season, often scratched in favor of more veteran players, but worked with the goalies before each practice and always entered the locker room smiling after.
And, to him, the apartment symbolized something important. No more living out of suitcases and staying in a hotel, across the street from the Washington Capitals’ practice facility. The apartment meant permanence. It meant he had reached the NHL.
“That was huge, just having a place, getting comfortable, coming to the rink every day and not being worried that you’re going to get sent down or called up or do that trip to Hershey six times,” he said. “It’s a lot easier just being around every day.”
The next step, Latta said, would be actually producing on the ice. Deployed almost exclusively on the fourth line, except for a brief third-line experiment that started and ended in the same game, Latta showed flashes of solid hands and playmaking abilities this season, posting a solid 51.0 even-strength shot attempt rate during the regular season and notching two assists in a December win over Columbus. In February, after getting scratched nine times in 10 games, Latta returned for a 4-0 win over Pittsburgh, anchoring the fourth line and receiving credit for fighting Steve Downie, after which the Capitals scored twice in two minutes.
But Latta also joined Dale Hunter and Joe Sacco as the only Washington forwards with more than 400 minutes of total ice time and zero goals. Then, in the postseason, he found himself glued to the press box, scratched for the entire second round and three of seven games against the New York Islanders. He understood.
“It seemed like every game we played was huge, whether we were catching guys in the standings or something,” Latta said. “There wasn’t much opportunity for minutes and stuff. Hopefully next year I can just get off to a good lead, a good opportunity for more minutes.”
By more minutes, Latta meant modest, realistic aspirations of 10 or 12 per night, rather than the single-digit ice time he logged in all but 11 games this season. Re-signed to a two-year deal worth $1.15 million on July 1, 2014, the 24-year-old was the only player tabbed for back-to-back preseason games and eventually beat out several other forwards battling for a depth role. It seems likely he’ll stay there to start 2015-16.
“I don’t feel like I have accomplished anything,” Latta said. “I’ve got to be playing in the lineup every night. I want to put any question in Trotzie’s mind to have me in the lineup every night, whether I can have more of a role on the PK, produce more offense.”