The way Michael Latta reflects on this past season might always be conflicted. Even at the Washington Capitals’ “breakdown day,” Latta was torn between the disappointment over how the year went for him as an individual and how much he enjoyed being on such a successful team.
It’s a familiar dilemma for Latta, as the price for being on a winning and deep team was that there wasn’t room in the lineup for him at the end of the season. He didn’t play in any playoff games, and after the trade deadline, Latta cracked the lineup just twice.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you’re not playing a lot, and you find ways to work every day and have a positive impact on the team,” Latta said. “It was a tough year for me personally, but I’ll say it again, it was probably one of the best years of my life, this team, this group, I had so much fun. It’s a really good group of guys and obviously we fell short, but it was a special group.”
Of Washington’s four restricted free agents, Latta faces the most uncertainty because finishing the season in the press box questions what role the Capitals see for Latta going forward. When asked if the plan is to re-sign all four of the Capitals’ restricted free agents (teams rarely part with those players), General Manager Brian MacLellan said, “I would assume they all come back,as of now.” Asked specifically about Latta, MacLellan expanded upon what he wants to see.
“He’s gotta be frustrated,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s a great teammate, guys love having him around, coaches like him. I think the key for him is he’s gotta bring something besides energy in that fourth-line role. He’s got to kill penalties; there’s got to be another dimension to his game for him to be successful in the league.”
MacLellan identified the Capitals’ third and fourth lines as the ones needing work, and it’s unclear where Latta fits in those plans. As he started to get pushed out of the lineup, he became more versatile to stay in it. The signing of Mike Richards in early January bolstered Washington’s bottom-six center depth, but it also meant there was no longer a role for Latta there, especially when the team was healthy.
Latta learned how to play wing because that gave him the best chance to see ice time. He was on the fourth line with Richards, a player he grew up idolizing. Latta won 51.5 percent of his faceoffs this season, but he never got to the point where he was contributing on the penalty kill. Richards, an unrestricted free agent, serves as a good model for the direction Latta’s development should head.
“If I’m back here, I’d love to be similar to him,” Latta said. “PK, faceoffs are my thing to. I’d love to do that.”
Latta had the most productive season of his career, scoring three goals and four assists, a career-high of seven points in 43 games, 10 fewer than he played last season. He logged the most fights (eight) on the team, according to hockeyfights.com. Latta’s cap hit was $575,000 this season.
“It is what it is, we’ll see if they – I come to practice every day, show up and work hard and try to be a good pro and not bring the team down,” Latta said. “I try to be a pro that way. Hopefully, it pays off with a new contract.”