As the newest, youngest members of the Maple Leafs settled in after their first NHL game Monday night at Air Canada Centre, the oldest, newest Leaf reflected on the Stanley Cup contending-squad he left in Washington, and the thrill of the challenge ahead of him in Toronto.
“I’d had a conversation with (Capitals GM Brian MacLellan) and conveyed that I wanted to be part of it and wanted to go after a Cup and unfortunately that didn’t work out, but the flip side of that (is) this is a great opportunity here,” said veteran forward Brooks Laich, acquired late Sunday in the trade that made forward Daniel Winnik a Capital. “You look at the standings and some people might say, ‘Oh, he could be grumpy and upset’. No. It’s a privilege to play in the National Hockey League, it’s a privilege to play for this franchise. I was a Maple Leaf fan until I was drafted by the Ottawa Senators, and that allegiance switched pretty quick, but (I’m) very excited to be here. The players and staff have welcomed me in, and I’m just very excited to be here and want to be part of the guys.”
The 33-year-old Laich was a central component of the Capitals (who acquired him from Ottawa in February of 2003) for 11 seasons, but he suffered injuries in 2012 that have nagged at him in the years that followed. Where once he was an ironman for the Caps – playing 82 games in four of five years between 2007 and 2012, the Wawota, Sask., native missed all but nine games of the 2012-13 campaign and appeared in 177 games for Washington in the two-and-two-thirds seasons that led up to Sunday’s trade. But as one of the senior members of an increasingly young Leafs lineup, his presence and experience is going to be invaluable to head coach Mike Babcock and team management – and Laich sees his fresh start in Toronto as a golden opportunity to reestablish himself as a central contributor to a successful team.
“For myself, my job here is not just off the ice (as a leader),” said Laich, who had one goal and seven points in 60 games with the Caps this season. “My job also is that I want to rebuild my career. (My) role had diminished in Washington, I still think I have a lot of hockey left, I love the game more than ever, so I want to rebuild my career and build up to the player I was prior to the injuries in 2012.”
In Laich’s first game as a Leaf Monday, he got to see the team’s youngsters – most notably, forwards William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman, who formed Toronto’s most dangerous line against Tampa, as well as winger Nikita Soshnikov and blueliner Connor Carrick – give an indication of their considerable skills. And while the Buds lost by a 2-1 margin, the way they lost – with Nylander, Kapanen and Hyman on the ice, pressuring the Bolts for the final 90 seconds of the third period – was both an indication of what the future holds for the organization and a reminder to Laich of what the Caps looked like when he was first starting out with that franchise.
“I know that feeling a little bit from 10 years ago in Washington, where we used to chase games a little bit,” said Laich, who logged 12: 27 of ice time. “At the end of the game, you want a shot to be there, and we were. We get the late goal, and we have 2:15 left where young guys are on the ice, it’s exciting, they’re controlling the puck.
“We hung with a very good hockey team. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a very good hockey team and we hung with them, came up a goal short – two goals short to win the hockey game, but a goal short of getting points, which is what you want to do in the National Hockey League. But I was proud of the way our guys played last night. I really was.”
Laich is renowned for the leadership abilities he displayed with the Capitals, but Babcock believes he can be an effective veteran for his Leafs squad on and off the ice.
“His responsibility in Washington dwindled, and so we need to help him get his game back to a level that it was once at,” Babcock said of Laich. “He’s still a young enough guy to have an impact, so not only do you want to have an impact in the room, you want to have an impact on the ice. So we’ll be working closely with him on that.”
In a lengthy discussion with media after Toronto’s practice Tuesday, Laich talked about the importance of making a team’s young players feel comfortable – not just in the way they fit into an organization’s on-ice attack, but in the sense of how they relate to each other and feel about themselves in the dressing room. And he says he learned from savvy veterans in his early years in Washington.
“I had great veterans when I got to Washington,” Laich said. “I had Olaf Kolzig, I had Dainus Zubrus, I had Jeff Halpern, I had Brendan Witt, I had Brian Willsie. I had guys that looked after me and always made me feel like I had a voice. That was the thing – they made me feel welcome and they made me feel that I could add value to the team and that I had a voice.
“I always remembered that feeling, and that’s certainly something I want to instill in these guys: promote their personalities, try and tell them not be shy, talk, have fun, laugh, that’s OK. Make them comfortable so they can just be themselves. The best selves they can be is the best player they’re going to be. And in the end, we all win.”
While Laich will be a person the Leafs’ youngsters can lean on and learn from in the weeks and months ahead – he’s signed through next season – he’s also looking forward to working with Babcock, whom he’d never met prior to Monday’s tilt against Tampa.
“You can really see how much he loves the game,” Laich said of Babcock. “His intensity, the way he coaches every little detail, the way he rolls on, one thing to the next thing to the next thing. (He’s) high energy, high tempo. I really think he just has maybe more fun than most people with the game. As a student of the game, I’m really excited to learn from a mind like that, you can always continue to learn.”