Caps coach Glen Hanlon has been very firm in saying that the upcoming season is not all about the three free agents Washington signed over the summer. He believes the Caps’ core of young players has improved over the last two seasons and that it will continue to do so in 2007-08.
“It’s the remaining 16 or 17 players that we feel have advanced to be able to be more of a team with higher skill,” he told the assembled media the day before training camp opened last Friday.
Forward Brooks Laich
is one of those young players. Acquired from Ottawa in the Feb. 2004 deal that sent Peter Bondra to the Senators, Laich is now in his third training camp with the Caps. Although he is familiar with Hanlon-run camps and he has spent most of the last two seasons in Washington, Laich knows he can’t coast through this camp.
“I think you have to have the same approach,” he says. “Just because I’ve been here for two years, you can’t come in here and be complacent. You still have to earn your spot, you have to show you’re able to execute in practice and you’re here to work. I’m excited to be back.”
The 24-year-old native of Wawota, Sask. has played in 151 NHL games now, and he has established a certain level of performance. Laich is looking to raise that level in 2007-08.
“I think this year is a little different in the sense that I’ve been here for a couple years and I’m a little more mature and more experienced,” Laich states. “There is not going to be such a learning curve. I’m at the level, now I just want to establish a bigger role for myself on the team. I’m looking forward to it. It’s been exciting. We’re getting the [preseason] games going here. I just want to try to finish out camp hard and try to be a dependable player in both offensive and defensive zones, somebody you can put on the ice in special situations and somebody who can contribute to a winning hockey club.”
Laich contributed to a winning hockey club in the spring of 2006 when he helped the Hershey Bears to their ninth Calder Cup championship. After spending the bulk (73 games) of the 2005-06 season in Washington, the rangy center joined the Bears for the postseason. He totaled eight goals and 15 points in 21 playoff tilts to earn a Calder Cup ring.
A center by trade, Laich is certain to see some time on the wing this season. With the additions of centers Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, Nicklas Backstrom
and possibly Dave Steckel, the Capitals are suddenly flush up the middle.
“Every player wants one position,” says Hanlon. “You know what? If you’re Alexander Ovechkin you’re likely going to be a left winger. You’re not going to play all three [forward] positions. Until you really establish yourself at that level, I think the more positions you can play, I think it really helps out because you’re a very versatile player.
“The best example I can give you is Boyd Gordon. I thought that at some stages last year, Boyd was perhaps our best player. I talked to Boyd in the summer and asked if it matters if he plays right wing. He said, ‘No, it’s all the same.’ Life’s what you make it. If you want to look for troubles, you can. As Tim Hunter would say, I can play left, I can play right but not [left] out.’”
Laich isn’t looking for troubles, he’s looking to play a larger role on a playoff-bound team. He figures that adding some versatility to his résumé might get him on the ice more frequently.
“I think it’s something that helps a guy get more ice,” he says, when asked about shifting to the wing. “If you’re just a centerman alone with the amount of centermen here, you might not get as much ice as you’d like. If you can play the wing, you might get thrown on a couple lines where you’re getting some more ice. It’s something that has helped me get ice the last two years. If you’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades, it makes you a dependable player, someone the coach can rely on. I think it’s a good asset to have.”
Laich added another good asset last season when he spent some time killing penalties and proved he was up to the task.
had never killed penalties,” says Hanlon. “By the end of the year, Brooks Laich
was a pretty good penalty killer.”
Laich averaged 2:06 a game in shorthanded ice time last season, up from just 16 seconds a contest as a rookie. Not only that, he netted three shorthanded goals, tied for 10th in the NHL. Laich figures that learning to kill penalties makes him a better defensive player.
“There are a lot of similarities between the PK and defensive zone [coverage] and even 4-on-4,” he says. “If you are a penalty killer you can get a chance 4-on-4; it’s the same sort of breakout and defensive responsibilities. As many elements as I can add to my game, if it’s being a penalty killer, that adds up to somebody who is dependable on the ice and somebody the coach doesn’t have a problem putting on the ice because he knows he will be responsible defensively and the puck is not going to end up in his net.
“At the same time I want to concentrate on being a two-way player and not just being so defensive all the time. Especially this year with our group of guys and our defensemen, we’re going to be a puck control team. As soon as we get the puck back we want to go on the attack. So once we get the puck I want to go on the attack. I want to be able to play both ends of the ice and be a threat in the offensive zone as well as steady in the defensive zone.”
Laich has worked hard to improve his game away from the puck. He got off to a tough start defensively at the beginning of the 2004-05 season, his second season as a pro, when he was with the Portland Pirates. He worked at it on and off the ice, and has become a much more responsible and reliable player in his own end and away from the puck. This season, Laich is aiming to get off to a good start.
“I’m looking for a better start in that area,” he says. “I don’t know [what it is] at the start of the seasons. Maybe it’s a missed assignment here or there which I don’t miss in the second half of the season. Maybe I come out a little slow offensively sometimes, maybe that’s something I have to work on more this year, as soon as we get the puck going down the ice and trying to put the puck in the net and not just playing to not get scored on. This year it’s something that I’m definitely conscious of.”
After collecting one assist in his first 18 games of 2006-07, Laich totaled eight goals and 17 points over his last 55 contests. The Caps were 17-31-8 over their final 56 games of the season, but Laich managed to carve out an impressive plus-7 defensive rating during that time.
“I like the way I finished last year,” he says. “If I look at the tapes from last year I know the things I did well. Don’t miss any checks in our defensive zone. It also starts in the offensive zone; if you make bad passes or bad decisions there then the puck is coming down in your end. Try to play a puck possession game and hold onto the puck in the offensive zone and keep doing the things we’ve been doing: shoot the puck, go to the net, look for rebounds, deflections and anything like that. It’s definitely something I’m conscious of and hopefully I’ll have a better start this year.”
While he will continue to work hard away from the puck, Laich also wants to improve the offensive side of his game. He was fourth on the team in shots on goal last season, trailing only Alex Ovechkin
, Alexander Semin
and Chris Clark. Getting a few more of those shots past opposing goaltenders is on his agenda this season.
“Yeah, I think so,” he says when asked if he believes there is some offensive upside to his game. “I think this year especially with a more creative bunch in here with the additions of [Viktor] Kozlov and [Michael] Nylander. Those players will have a funnel-down effect. Obviously they have a longer leash than some guys to make plays. But at the same time, if you’re playing with better players it’s only going to help out the other guys on the team. There’s myself and there are some other guys who are looking to bounce back and take another step forward in the offensive categories but at the same time not sacrifice anything in the defensive area.”
For more on Laich, check out this recent entry on Dump and Chase.