When the Washington Capitals signed Mike Richards in early January, adding an experienced center to an already stacked forward corps, Michael Latta knew that might not bode well for him. He was excited to have Richards on the team, but as he considered the team’s depth at center, he realized there may not be a place for him at that position.
Jay Beagle had just injured his hand, needing surgery, but he had been the team’s best player on faceoffs. Marcus Johansson had just converted to center, but the third line was thriving with him there. Then add Richards, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, to the mix.
Latta’s priority was staying in the lineup, so after talking with Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, they both agreed that the best move was for him to start playing wing.
“I mean, I’m realistic, and I figured the best chance for me to get in the lineup was on the right side,” Latta said. “And I’ve liked that. I think I’ve done well at it. I think I’m still learning a lot about the wing and growing. I’ve been a centerman the whole time, and the wing, you kind of get more offensive looks and stuff. It’s been a lot more fun maybe. We’ve been playing well, I think, so it’s been good.”
Latta, a restricted free agent at the end of the season, has reached a career high in points with seven through 41 games. But with Beagle nearing a return to the lineup sometime in the next week, Latta faces uncertainty again, as he could be one of the two forwards scratched when Beagle is back. Trotz has said Beagle will likely start on the fourth line, and he can play center or wing.
“I’m not really sure what they’re going to do, if he’s going to play center or move up,” Latta said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, just got to kind of play it by ear.”
Latta has alternated being in the lineup with Stanislav Galiev, and Trotz usually makes the call depending on the matchup. He’ll play Galiev against faster teams and Latta against the more physical ones. Trotz said Galiev would be in the lineup against Montreal on Wednesday night. Despite the inconsistent playing time, he’s felt like he’s carved out a role this season.
“Last year, we were a lot heavier team,” Latta said. “We had a bigger team last year, so we had more guys to kind of grind. This year, we’re a little smaller, but a lot more skilled, I guess. I think guys like me, [Tom Wilson] and [Jason Chimera] have a greater impact on our team to wear guys down and stuff.”
Said Trotz: “The one thing that Michael has been doing is he’s trying to convert to the wing on a more regular basis. He still plays some center. He can still be in draws. He gives us a little bit of an edge. … I think Mike is learning that more and more, and I think there’s a little more urgency in his overall game because we have a good hockey team, and ‘Where do I fit in?’ ”
On a different team, one that doesn’t already have 92 points in February, maybe there would be more opportunity for Latta. But he prefers being on this team, even if it means his spot in the lineup could be in jeopardy again.
“I’d much rather be in this situation than a team that loses every game and be playing more minutes,” Latta said. “It’s been a hell of a year. It’s hard to explain how good it’s been.”