The declarations blare across the NHL each fall and Michael Latta felt ready to join the chorus. “I think I’m in the best shape of my life right now,” the young Washington Capitals forward said recently, echoing what almost everyone says around this time, though that didn’t necessarily make this assertion untrue. By eating right and training plenty, Latta dropped between 10 and 15 pounds this offseason, drastic enough of an improvement that his head coach took notice.
“He’s done a really good job in the summer,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I’m really proud of the changes he’s made in terms of his body, his conditioning, his commitment, all those areas. I want to give him a really good chance.”
As a 23-year-old last season, officially a rookie by league standards, Latta’s role was mostly limited to the fourth line, skating both on the wing and at center, averaging 8 minutes and 23 seconds of ice time. He was the NHL’s only forward held without a goal in at least 50 games, though his 52.96 even-strength scoring chance rate ranked fifth among regular Capitals forwards, according to war-on-ice.com.
Now, with training camp on the horizon, a restricted free agent at season’s end, Latta returned from his Toronto home with one simple goal: Don’t get scratched.
“They could put me on defense, I don’t care. I don’t want to be out of the lineup once this year,” Latta said. “I want to get my spot and solidify it, not worry about being in and out of the lineup. You start worrying about that, your game starts to fade. That’s what I’m looking forward to, getting my chance and putting it down and not having to worry about looking at the lineup and wondering if I’m playing.”
A crowded crop of bottom-six challengers might make this difficult. Center Jay Beagle re-signed for three years, holding firm his desire for the third-line spot, and Trotz anticipated trying both Brooks Laich and Andre Burakovsky up the middle during training camp. Then, last weekend, the Capitals inked Derek Roy to a professional tryout agreement, both as insurance for Nicklas Backstrom’s recovering hip and for a risk-free look at another option.
That leaves Latta, who had always felt more comfortable at center, where Trotz planned to deploy him when preseason practices begin Friday.
“I told Latts to be prepared for both,” Trotz said. “I think number one he’s pretty good in the middle, I think I’ll start him in the middle. There’s an open spot for that third line, he should have a chance to do that.”
Self-aware in his status as a bottom-six “grinder,” Latta is also one of Washington’s two right-handers who took more than 100 faceoffs last season – he had 335; Beagle had 384 – and Trotz has suggested Latta could help compensate for the losses of Eric Fehr, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward on the penalty-killing unit. Currently on a one-way contract, according to Generalfanager.com, Latta was never reassigned to Hershey last season, a meaningful matter that allowed him to remain with the Capitals full-time.
Now, relayed Trotz’s comments, Latta understood the expectations were higher.
“If Trotzie’s saying that, he expects more,” Latta said. “Hopefully we get a little more responsibility, more playing time. All that stuff goes together, he trusts us a bit more, we play better, we get more ice time. I’m really excited for this year. I really put the work in this summer, dedicated myself and the team we got here is pretty special. You want to be as best as you can, because this team has a legit chance to contend.
“I’m ready. If Trotzie’s saying that, he believes it. Not being a rookie, two and a half years in the league now, I’m ready.”
And, of course, in the best shape of his life.