Capitals center Michael Latta keeps the puck away from Devils center Stefan Matteau during Saturday’s season opener. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It didn’t matter that the Washington Capitals declared the fourth-line center job up for grabs and then gave themselves more options open by inviting players to training camp. Michael Latta always considered it his gig to lose.

“He’s always had some confidence,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who sits next to Latta in Washington’s dressing room. “But I think he’s got a little bit more now.”

Although Latta was never reassigned to Hershey last season, spending the entirety of his official rookie season with the Capitals, his role was limited to the fourth line, where he skated at both wing and center. His goal entering this season was to never be out of the lineup after he was a healthy scratch for most of the playoffs. That meant carving out a stable spot for himself.

As the team’s plans up the middle until injured top-line center Nicklas Backstrom can play again took shape, only the fourth line was left unresolved. There was 32-year-old Derek Roy, who came to training camp on a professional tryout contract. There was 21-year-old Chandler Stephenson, a promising prospect who had earned Coach Barry Trotz’s praise. There was Washington staple Brooks Laich, who’s played at both wing and center in his career.

In the end, there was only Latta was left.

“Latts has got a lot of attributes that I like,” Trotz said last week. “He’s one of those guys that can get under your skin. He’s a guy that’s good on faceoffs. He’s a guy that has some good skills, and he’s got the intangible teammate stuff. But he’s still got to grow his game. I’m still expecting more of Mike Latta.”

It started with Latta expecting more of himself. He averaged 8 minutes 23 seconds of ice time last season, playing in 53 games, but he was the NHL’s only forward held without a goal in at least 50 games. His 52.96 even-strength scoring chance rate ranked fifth among regular Capitals forwards, according to

He joined roommate and Washington winger Tom Wilson in Toronto during the summer, working out with a group of NHLers and renowned trainer Matt Nichol. Latta dropped between 10 and 15 pounds and picked up speed. Then with the offseason departures of center Eric Fehr and wingers Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward — all right-handers like Latta — his faceoff prowess became a premium, potentially further ensuring a consistent spot in the lineup.

He and third-line center Jay Beagle are the team’s only two right-handers who took more than 100 faceoffs last season, and according to, he won 47.8 percent of the 335 draws he took.

“We lost some key guys, and it’s time for me to step up,” Latta said. “It’s nice not having a lot of the older guys around here to kind of compete with for spots after they’ve been here for a while. It’s my job to lose, and that’s nice for a change.”

Trotz has said that he doesn’t want Latta to be a fourth-line center forever, envisioning him moving up the lineup. The perception of Latta is that he’s a bottom-six “grinder,” but Alzner said his skill is underrated, impressed with his creativity in working his stick and getting pucks off players, the “plays that you don’t really see.”

“I think he feels more stable right now, so I think for him, the only thing that would ever keep him out is if he gets too comfortable,” Alzner said.

“I’ve played a lot of years, and I’ve never really gotten complacent,” Latta said. “When you’re a player like me, you work your way up. Play two and a half years in the minors, then you get up here, and you’re fighting for a job every time.

“Complacency kind of takes a backseat all of the time. I guess that’s one advantage of coming up the road I did.”