Don’t Underestimate Brooks Laich’s Importance

Posted March 13, 2013

Photo by M. Richter

In hockey, it’s not uncommon to see a bruise here and there.  In fact, they’re considered a badge of pride, since the belief is that the harder you work, the more you’ll get.  This is especially true of those players who are praised for their “grit,” who aren’t among the scoring elite.

Every now and then, you will get a player or two who seems resistant to pain of any type.  The kind of player who looks at any game like a playoff game, and treats it as such. Unfortunately, for the Capitals – and many other teams this season – when those players do inevitably get hurt, their loss is immediately visible.

Prior to this season, Brooks Laich had been battling with Nicklas Backstrom for best attendance in the regular season since Backstrom’s debut in 2007. Both forwards play key roles for the Capitals and have shown their leadership and value season after season. Until this year, Laich had missed no more than nine games since earning a spot in the NHL and recorded four full seasons, putting him 41 games over Backstrom’s career totals in the same timeframe. With his absence so far this season, Laich is now down to 15 more than Backstrom and the number is shrinking.

Backstrom’s absence through his concussion last year was noticeable; missing 40 games after what was looking like a rebound year after finishing with 18 goals the previous season. During that time, his place as first-line centre was mainly filled by Marcus Johansson. With Johansson moving from his usual second-line position, Laich stood up and helped fill the space wherever it was needed. He spent some time on the first line filling in for Backstrom himself, but spent the majority of the time swapping between wing and centre on the second line.

Of course, Laich isn’t the sole determinant of their performance – far from it in terms of scoring – but what he brings to the team through high-minutes and focused energy on the bench, it’s tough to replace when push comes to shove. Not to mention the Capitals have gone most of the season without the luxury of Mike Green – something that has become almost customary in recent seasons.

With the Capitals missing a few components that they’ve been used to having – players like Dennis Wideman, Green, or Alex Semin – the stability once brought to the bench from mainstays like Laich and Mike Knuble is just one of the many perils the Caps have had to face so far in this shortened season.

However, all is not lost. The Caps have started to show signs of life on the ice every now and then. While their record of 11-14-1 isn’t what any fan likes to see, a playoff spot is still up for grabs, provided they can work together and make an exceptional comeback.

Even after Thursday’s 3-2 win against Carolina, the chance of the Capitals making the playoffs at this point isn’t looking very good. They have repeatedly shown inconsistency from one shift to the next, while the rest of the Eastern Conference teams seem rather settled in their ways. Perhaps all they need is some short-term memory loss to give them the lift needed to raise them in the standings.

Reason for Hope

At this point, it would be hard to predict the season ending favorably for the Caps, but with recent advances on the ever-growing injury front, there may be a spark of hope.

In the lower ranks of the Caps system, word of Dmitry Orlov’s return to the lineup after missing three months and 40 games with a concussion is very promising news. While it is likely he will stick with the Bears for some amount of time, there is always the possibility of seeing him rocking the red before the end of the season.

Likewise, after the brief onset of the seemingly annual goalie-shuffle, the Caps once again have a healthy stock of goalies throughout their system.

To cap off the good news, after missing all 26 games so far this season, Laich recently joined the team during practice for the first time since mid-February. That doesn’t mean you should expect to see him playing right away. Laich doesn’t have a set time-frame for when he will return, but skating is a huge step in the right direction for his recovery. In the meantime, his return is definitely something to look forward to, provided the rest of the boys can keep the team’s hope alive.

In addition to the promising injury news, after Tuesday’s less-than redeeming 4-0 loss to the Hurricanes, Adam Oates tried mixing up lines, reuniting Backstrom and Ovechkin on the first line. Though it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be back together in the long run – so far he is becoming known for experimental line-making – but it shows he’s willing to give it a try in order to reignite the team.