It is harder and harder to talk about Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich without the phrase “if healthy.”
From 2005-06 to 2011-12, Laich played a minimum of 73 games each year and a full slate of regular season games in four of the seven seasons. He was rewarded with a six-year contract extension worth $27 million with the Capitals in 2011, and was praised by General Manager George McPhee “as one of the League’s finer two-way players” who “is just entering his prime. His combination of size, speed, versatility and leadership makes him a valuable part of our club.”
Then the injuries started, limiting Laich to just nine games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and 51 games last season.
Then came the talk of the Capitals perhaps using one of their compliance buyouts to get out from under his contract, though assistant GM Don Fishman told CSN that he doesn’t expect Washington to do so. Laich’s agent, Roly Thompson, also believes his client will be on the roster when training camp opens later this summer, and that the club needs him.
“[Laich] is the glue of the team,” Thompson told CSN. “He’s the guy in the dressing room that’s the leader and when he’s not there or injured, things tend to not be as cohesive. So if there is one guy you would not want to let go, it would be Brooks.”
“I think we need Brooks Laich,” new general manger Brian MacLellan said. “When Brooks Laich is in our lineup the team plays better – a healthy Brooks Laich. A non-healthy Brooks Laich hurts our chances.”
The Capitals do get value from Laich, especially on the penalty kill, where he led all Caps forwards in shorthanded ice time with just less than three minutes per game. And he limited the time he spent in the box as well:
Laich took just six minor penalties on the season, with only Marcus Johansson picking up fewer among forwards who played at least 20 games for the Caps this season. And along the way he managed to pick up a shorthanded goal and assist, tying Karl Alzner for the team lead with two shorthanded points on the season.
But then things start to get dicey.
On the power play, he averaged 1 minute 20 seconds per game but tallied just three points on the NHL’s most efficient team with the man advantage (it scored on 23.4 percent of its power plays), one that also included the top two power-play scorers in the league (Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom).
We can discount some of this because of the injuries, but for a player that is considered by many to be a two-way or defensive forward the results have been on the decline for some time. And just not good overall.
When Laich was on the ice last season, the Capitals took 45.8 percent of the unblocked shot attempts during even strength (Fenwick Percentage). On shifts that Laich started without a face-off (“open play”), that number climbed slightly to 47.2 percent but has been on the decline ever since the “fun and gun” days with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench.
It should be noted that Laich has played under three coaches and four systems since the 2009-10 season, so perhaps that contributed to the decline. And keep in mind that Laich played just nine games and skated 201 shifts total in 2013, so we have a ton of noise in that year-over-year increase because of a very small sample size.
What can’t be discounted is the steady increase in the percentage of shifts in which the opposition gets two or more shot attempts on the same shift, which come at the expense of those shifts which saw no shot attempts against.
When Laich was called upon to take a draw in the offensive zone, Washington enjoyed healthy shot differentials, including 61 percent of all Fenwick events in 2013-14 with Laich on the ice.
This is not uncommon — the fewer draws a skater takes in the defensive zone, the higher we would expect his shot percentage to be.
On those shifts in which Laich was called upon in the defensive zone, the Caps took 33.9 percent of the Fenwick events last season.
This, too, should be expected for the opposite reason above: more defensive zone shifts equate to fewer shot attempts at the other end. What’s interesting here is that the Caps saw an increase in the percentage of Laich’s shifts where the opposition did not get a single shot attempt directed against them.
This is where teams can achieve the highest return on analytics: by using video and coaches input to determine why the increase occurred, what went right and how best to replicate it.
During neutral-zone faceoffs, where neither team has a territorial advantage on the ice, the Caps managed 41.6 percent of the Fenwick events with Laich on the ice. That also is a decline from previous years.
This is the most troubling, as a few recent studies have suggested the importance of neutral-zone play, including having the highest correlation for shots attempts when you ignore special teams and lead-protecting situations and team points per game. If Laich’s ability to help his teammates retrieve the puck in the neutral zone is slipping, he could do more harm than good to the team over the long haul.
So what’s it all mean?
Trotz appears to use his top forwards to contribute offense and help shut down the other team’s best forwards, which sounds like a perfect use of Laich. However, that typically means a steady diet of defensive-zone starts and it is clear from above that Washington does best in terms of outshooting the competition when Laich is used in an offensive role. Unless of course Trotz can figure out what made Laich more effective in the defensive zone this season and make it sustainable for the upcoming campaign.