Bruce Boudreau doesn’t like using the term “utility player” to describe Brooks Laich, but in this case it isn’t meant as a slight.
Quite the opposite in fact - having Laich as a jack-of-all-trades type is of incredible value to the Washington Capitals’ coach. Not only can the forward’s skill set translate on any line at any position in almost any situation, he is growing into one of the team’s integral leaders and one of the franchise’s core players.
“Growing up I had good coaches that were very influential on me that emphasized ‘Become a player that can be put on the ice in any situation,’ ” Laich said. “I want the coach to look down the bench for a guy to do a certain job and say, ‘I can put that guy on the ice in any single situation, and he can do the job.’ ”
Added Boudreau: “I don’t like to use the word ‘utility’ because that sounds like spare part. … The reason he plays the minutes he does is because I can count on him to do an honest effort and do what we want almost every time he goes on the ice.”
Laich was a sixth-round pick by Ottawa in 2001 and was a little-known quantity when the Caps acquired him for Peter Bondra in 2004, but the move has proved to be one of the savviest of general manager George McPhee’s tenure. He had marginal production in the first two years after the lockout, but Laich has become a quality NHL player.
He notched 21 goals and 37 points two seasons ago - mostly from his willingness to create havoc around the net on the power play - and then upped those totals to 23 and 53 last season.
At 26, Laich is entering what could be the prime years of his career, and he thinks he has more offensive potential.
“I think so, but it is also a matter of the situations I am put in. I think I can put up 60-some points, but you have to play with scorers the whole time - and I don’t know if that is going to be my role entirely,” Laich said. “Sometimes I think it is better for our hockey team if I play a checking line and also bring some offensive balance to that role instead of just [the opposing team] loading up on the top-six forwards.”
One role Laich has been growing into is that of team leader. With Sergei Fedorov in Russia and Donald Brashear in Manhattan, the Caps are short a couple of veteran leaders. New addition Mike Knuble should help in that department, but the youthful Caps aren’t so green anymore, and players like Laich, David Steckel and Mike Green are likely to be leaned on for leadership.
“A great influence on me was having Sergei Fedorov here,” Laich said. “The way he helped me, yeah, I will try to help younger guys like that. I’ve been here through the tough times and now the good times. I don’t really think about it too much. I just come to the rink and do my job, and if people see that as leadership, then that’s great.”
Both Fedorov and Brashear wore an “A” on their sweaters as alternate captains last season, but with a healthy captain in Chris Clark, there will be only two alternates. Alex Ovechkin will be one. Laich should be one of the favorites for the honor, but there are plenty of candidates. Boudreau named Laich, Steckel, Green, Knuble, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Poti and Matt Bradley as possibilities.
“I think [Laich] has leadership built into him,” Boudreau said. “He was a leader last year, and guys really respect him a lot. He’s definitely so much a leader that he’s a guy that you consider putting an ‘A’ on.”