"I started chasing the Stanley Cup since I was born. I'm 27 years into it and I don't have one, so a couple of years of [the fans] frustration I don't think compares to all the frustration and the pressure I put on myself." - Brooks Laich, 9/23/10
The offensive decline of the 2010-11 Washington Capitals is quickly becoming one of the most talked about storylines of the season, particularly in contrast with the offensive juggernaut that was last year's model. The captain's struggling, the top playmaker's going weeks between goals, the power play is powerless...same story, different day. That the group as a whole is having trouble scoring, however, isn't a reason to overlook the production - or lack thereof - from the guys whose paychecks may be considerably lower but who bear almost as much of the burden.
And so we turn our eyes to one Brooks Laich.
Laich – he of the great quotes and the tire-changing hands – is having what most of us would agree is an off-year, one that just doesn’t seem to be living up to his fiery, frustrated words. After posting career highs (like most of his teammates) last season in goals, assists, and points en route to his third straight twenty-plus goal campaign, Laich’s offensive production is down considerably. He’s now at just a 15-goal pace for the season, his even-strength points/60 is down from 2.12 last season to 1.59 this season and his shots on goal per game have dipped from 2.84 to 2.34.
One of the biggest culprits in his overall decline has to be the power play, a thorn in the Caps' collective side for the better part of two months but an even bigger factor for someone whose production practically revolved around it a season ago. 12 of Laich's 25 goals last year came on the power play; this year he has just four with the extra man, a pace that would give him just two or three more for the entire season. He's gone from a whopping 5.26 points-per-60 minutes a year ago to just 2.57 this year, a dramatic drop that's both caused by and a cause of the overall team failures with the extra man. It's easy to pin the power play woes on power play quarterback Mike Green, and he certainly bears some of the responsibility...but the guy whose job it is to create space and go to the net simply isn't cashing in, and that's a problem.
A silver lining to Laich's game has been his defense, another trend that is in keeping with the rest of the team but worth singling out for the individual effort. While his offensive production is way down, he's lowered his shorthanded GAON/60 from 5.33 to 3.92, his even strength GAON/60 from 2.43 to 1.59 - all while going up against some tough competition. It's even enough to garner serious national attention.
And yet even in that area, he's struggled recently. In the month of January he's had just one game with a positive plus-minus, going minus-five over that eleven-game stretch. He's been on the ice for ten of the twenty-one goals the Caps have allowed over the last ten games (two while three-on-five, none at four-on-five) - more than any forward and tied with Schultz for the most on the team - and has only been on for three in that span, all at even strength. That minus-7 differential is the worst on the team (with Schultz next at -5).
To some extent Brooks Laich is just the latest victim of one of the ongoing issues with the team in general, one that's been beaten into the ground yet can't be underlined enough - the lack of a true second-line center. It's been a role filled by not-quite-ready pivots (and sometimes Laich himself), a position constantly in flux since the departure of Tomas Fleischmann back in November. Between that and the fact that on many nights he's skating with Mike Knuble (a player who is in essence the same guy with ten more years of experience), Laich's struggles are even more pronounced.
The tricky thing with someone like Brooks Laich is that, unlike the Ovechkins and Backstroms of the world, the expectation that his talent will someday simply kick back in isn't necessarily there. The shooting percentage is lower than normal, the points aren't where they've been, but we're not talking about a 50-goal, 100-point player. Unable to rely on otherworldly abilities, Laich has to use his work ethic and his nose for the net to get himself out of this slump.
Because actions speak louder than words - and right now, from Laich, just about the only thing the Caps are getting is the latter.