Every year, the Washington Capitals try to turn their playoff losses into learning experiences. There’s no finger pointing, no big roster upheaval, no emotion of any kind, really. They just take a step back, survey the wreckage and say: What could we have done better? What should we have done better?
One of the things the Caps seem to have taken away from their second-round sweeping by Tampa Bay last month is this: The Lightning got much more production out of their secondary scorers in the postseason than Washington did. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier are going to get their goals, but Sean Bergenheim, Teddy Purcell, Steve Downie and Ryan Malone also did plenty of damage for them. The Caps need more guys like that. If they’re going to continue to play tight-checking, playoff-type hockey, they need scoring coming from as many sources as possible.
Against this backdrop, George McPhee’s activities the past few days make a lot of sense. First, the Capitals‘ general manager traded his first-round draft pick, 26th overall, to the Chicago Blackhawks for Troy Brouwer, a rough-and-tumble right wing. Then he re-signed center/Swiss Army knife Brooks Laich to a $27 million deal Tuesday, locking Laich up for another six years.
In the end, McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis decided they weren’t going to play the zero-sum game of dealing for Brouwer and letting Laich leave in free agency (as many Brooks boosters feared). No, if they were going to improve the club, if they were going to follow through on their plan to add scoring depth, they had to have both. Fortunately for them, they had the cap room. Now we’ll see if the team can — finally — get past the second round of the playoffs.
Keeping Laich out of the clutches of other Stanley Cup contenders — and rest assured there would have been plenty of interest in him — is just good business. Laich, after all, can play multiple positions and roles, has an exemplary work ethic and is a stand-up guy in the locker room. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of player-ambassador every club is looking for.
Brouwer, meanwhile, brings a bit more growl to a roster that could definitely use some. His 262 hits last season were fifth in the NHL — and 21 more than Alex Ovechkin doled out (which put him 10th in the league). When was the last time the Caps had two of the top 10 hit men? (Answer: It hasn’t happened since the statistic became official in 2002-03.)
There’s little doubt these two moves will make the Capitals a better regular season team. But they’re already a very good regular season team, good enough to earn the first seed in the conference the past two years. The bigger question is: Will the Brouwer trade and the Laich re-signing make them a better playoff team? The returns won’t start coming in on that one for another nine months.
It’s reasonable to wonder about it, though. Brouwer might have won a ring with the Blackhawks in 2009, but he has yet to show big-time goal scoring ability in the postseason. In 43 games, he has just four goals (to go with six assists). A goal every 10 games isn’t going to change the Caps’ playoff fortunes much, is it?
Laich, too, has been a modest postseason scorer — seven goals in 37 games (two fewer than Bergenheim had this year alone). Or look at it this way: In the past four regular seasons, Brooks has scored a goal every 3.8 games; in the past four playoffs, he’s scored one every 5.3 games. So … are Brouwer and Laich really the kind of clutch performers who are going to help the Capitals get to the next level? Just asking.
As Laich said Tuesday, “The main thing Tampa Bay did better than us was they really elevated their game — as individuals and as a team. We have to be able to elevate our game like that, instead of just being consistently good. It’s a learning process.”
Obviously, when you are swept in the playoffs, you have more issues than just secondary scoring. In the Caps’ case, Nicklas Backstrom disappeared on them in the postseason, Mike Green — post-concussion — wasn’t much of a factor, and the defense broke down at crucial times (to name just three). Also, there’s no denying their 23-year-old goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, was outplayed by the Lightning’s 41-year-old goaltender, Dwayne Roloson.
Of course, 23-year-old goalies become 24-year-old goalies, and 41-year-old goalies become 42-year-old goalies. Which would you rather have? For that matter, Brouwer (26 in August) and Laich (28) figure to have several fine seasons ahead of them - as should virtually all of the Capitals‘ core (Ovechkin, Backstrom, et al.). The window isn’t closing by any means. In fact, it’s wide open.
Once again, though, it will be a long wait for Caps fans between now and next year’s playoffs. McPhee continues to collect some very nice pieces, but it won’t mean anything if they don’t all fit together. On paper, it looks pretty good. But the game, as we all know, is played on a much more slippery surface.