Brooks Laich has made it well-known that while he's fine with protocol and trainers doing their job, he'd rather fight through an injury than be forced out of a game. The Washington Capitals forward hasn't missed one since March, 30, 2010.
Barring a sudden turn, that streak will likely will change Saturday night when the Caps open the season at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Laich is dealing with an apparent groin injury suffered while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, and he wasn't able to skate with teammates the first two days of training camp.
And as much as the 29-year-old would love to manage the pain and keep going, risking further damage doesn't seem worth it, and the Caps will be tasked with filling his many roles.
"He's a good penalty killer, he's good on draws and pretty good in the D-zone, very responsible," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "Guys like Jay Beagle are going to have to step up. Guys who are stepping into the lineup like [Wojtek] Wolski have to be able to contribute right away in trying to be able to figure out the systems and figure out the team and make sure that they fit in well."
Laich's absence might not cause the Caps to be as "lost," Brouwer's word, as they were last season when center Nicklas Backstrom missed 40 games with a concussion. But Laich does so much for this team that it's not like one player can replace him.
When Washington signed Laich to a six-year, $27 million contract in June 2011, it was because of his versatility. He can be a scoring winger and a presence in front of the net or a shutdown center, plus he can take his talents to the power play and the penalty kill.
"Of course he's big key for us and he's that kind of guy who make results for us," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "But he get hurt, we have guys who can step up their level as well."
Wolski is getting the first chance to fill what should've been Laich's spot on the second line with Mike Ribeiro and Brouwer. The offseason addition has just 16 goals in his last 104 NHL games, but playing with skilled linemates could spur an improvement.
"I'm excited about it. I obviously want the opportunity and hope to thrive in that position," said Wolski, who hopes to help out on the penalty kill in addition to scoring. "It's where I play my best. Hopefully it goes the way it should."
Laich's time with the Kloten Flyers of Switzerland's National League A didn't go the way he would've liked. Despite being almost a point-a-game player, the injury could cause him to miss some of the start of the Caps season. According to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, NHL teams don't have to pay players injured overseas during the lockout.
Laich made $6 million last season, so missing out on a couple of checks won't kill him. But not being on the ice is not something he tolerates.
Still, Mike Green's 2011-12 season was derailed by groin problems. With such a delicate injury, Laich might need to change his approach.
"You're sort of asking me, 'Should I be more level-headed than what I have been in the past?' And the answer is yes, but it's hard when your braindoesn't really work like that," Laich said. "As a competitor, all you think about is the competition. You don't think about, 'Oh, take it easy now.' Whenever you focus on the right now, it sort of takes outside influence from other people to remind you of certain things."
Caps players know Laich isn't on the ice with them right now, but with so much focus on learning coach Adam Oates' systems during a truncated training camp, Beagle said they can't worry about it.
"He obviously will be missed, but it's not going to affect anybody," said Beagle, whose role on the penalty kill should increase with Laich out. "It's a time to step up and it's a time to maybe play a little bit more."
Look for Matt Hendricks and Backstrom to try to fill in for bits and pieces of what the Caps are lacking without Laich. The Caps have plenty of leadership in the locker room, but on the ice it takes a committee approach to fill the void.
"It adds [pressure] for a lot of guys because Brooks is an important part of our team, plays a lot," Oates said. "So those minutes are now available for other guys and they've got to step up and do it."
Laich takes "great personal pride" in being on the ice all the time, for games and practices. Not being able to skate with teammates isn't a situation he wants to be in, but teammates don't want him to rush back and make anything worse.
"We'd rather have him in playoffs than at the start of the year," Beagle said. "We'd rather have him down the stretch and make sure he's fully healed, have him when it gets even more important."
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