Brooks Laich thinks he’s going to play hockey until he’s 60. Given his durability and stubbornness, it’s not impossible to envision the Washington Capitals forward going strong until age 40.
For the past four-plus seasons, the Capitals have played just four games without Laich. Tuesday, they’ll have to do just that, trying to figure out how to replace their most versatile player.
“The thing is you don’t try and replace him,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “Everyone’s got to bring a little bit more in their game. It’s not like we can tell a player to be a Brooks Laich anymore. Guys got to help out on draws, guys got to help out in the D-zone. He’s a good, well-rounded player, and guys have to try and pick up where he’s out.”
Guys as in at least a handful of players, because there’s no one on the Capitals who can do all of Laich’s jobs. He’s the top penalty-killer, a reliable faceoff man, a key cog on the power play and a dependable two-way player five-on-five. So his left knee injury that will knock him out for an undetermined amount of time means a dedicated approach to filling in.
“It’ll be more of a committee that’s going to have to play on the power play, kill penalties and play against the top lines on the other teams,” coach Dale Hunter said. “Definitely it’s an opportunity for other players to step up.”
Laich officially is listed as day-to-day, though it’s uncertain whether the left knee injury is just a sprained MCL — which could mean a couple of weeks — or something worse, such as an ACL problem. Laich needed crutches to leave Verizon Center on Sunday, and he was evaluated by doctors Monday.
Compensating for Laich’s absence, starting Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers, falls on the likes of Joel Ward, Mathieu Perreault, Jay Beagle and Jeff Halpern.
Halpern will need to take more clutch faceoffs, Beagle is expected to kill penalties, Perreault goes back into a top-two center role and Ward should see an increase in ice time in multiple situations.
Then, of course, there’s the need to make up for Laich’s offense. Perreault called the veteran “probably our best player in the past 10 games,” and with games this week against two Southeast Division opponents, there’s a sense of urgency to keep chugging along despite this injury and previous ones to center Nicklas Backstrom (head) and defenseman Mike Green (groin).
“We’re going to do our best, and it’ll bring us closer together in here,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We’re going to miss him, that’s for sure. But at the same time, we feel like we can get wins without him.”
Brouwer said it’s not hard to look around the locker room and find guys willing to step up. And assistant coach Jim Johnson sees a positive in what looks like a bleak situation.
“Obviously it’s a blow for us, but, hey, what I always look at is the opportunities these guys are going to get to get up in those situations and play those minutes,” Johnson said. “Guys like Matty Perreault and Keith Aucoin now and Marcus Johansson, it’s a great time for them to shine now in a different role than they’re normally going to accept. And I think that’s what’s great about it: It gives these other guys opportunity.”