Karl Alzner had seen his fair share of teammates come and go during parts of eight seasons with the Washington Capitals, and although he figured something significant would happen before Monday’s trade deadline, the text message that flashed across the screen of his cell phone late Sunday night still stunned him.
It was from Brooks Laich, who sent a note that reached nearly every player on a team-wide group chat. The simple message shared the news that he had been told he had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“After being around for a while, you start to get used to trades a little bit, but a guy that’s been around so long, I think it’s hard for everybody to digest in the dressing room and in the city,” Alzner said on Tuesday, the players’ first day together following the deadline.
“I mean, it’s tough to even think about it, because it goes to show A, what a big part of this organization he was, and B, how tight-knit that we are as a group.”
Laich had been the longest-tenured member of the Capitals’ roster, joining the team via trade on Feb. 18, 2004. Nearly 150 players were teammates with Laich, whose 742 games played ranks eighth in franchise history.
The Capitals entered Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a league-leading 94 points, and general manager Brian MacLellan said days before the trade deadline that he didn’t want to make any moves that would untrack the team by disrupting its chemistry.
It would have been hard, though, for Laich to remain with the Capitals, given his production and the size of his contract. A fourth-liner all season — he was a healthy scratch for one game — Laich had just one goal and six assists. His $4.5 million annual salary cap hit was the third-largest on the books behind only that of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
MacLellan framed the move on Monday as a business decision and was emotional when speaking about letting Laich go. With Laich’s salary off the books, and the lesser salary of acquisition Daniel Winnik, MacLellan said the Capitals will have greater freedom to retain players whose contracts are expiring.
Ovechkin, who joined the Capitals in Laich’s first full season, was one of the first players to publicly react to news of Laich’s trade. He logged onto Twitter not long after midnight Monday and posted a photo of he and Laich on the ice together, smiling.
“Obviously, it’s a tough moment for him because I think he wants to stay here and fight for the [Stanley] Cup,” Ovechkin said on Tuesday. “It’s only me and him was [here] since my first year. Right now, it’s only me in the team who’s been since the beginning. … I think he did a great job for handle this pressure and to be able to play with us like 11 years or 10 years. He’s been a very big part of it.”
Backstrom, who was asleep when Laich’s text message arrived and didn’t see it until Monday morning, said he hopes Laich “can be the player he wants to be” with the Maple Leafs.
“He was as young as we were when he first got here, and when we started playing good here with the Caps, he was a big key,” Backstrom said. “He’s always been a big key for this team. The thing that impressed me the most really was that he was doing a lot for the community. He was helping out, raising money. He had a big heart, and that — you can go a long way with that, I think. That’s probably the thing that impressed me the most.”
Making his debut with Toronto on Monday night in a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Laich played 12:27 as the third-line right wing — more time than he had played in all but eight games this season.
Coincidentally, he’ll return with the Maple Leafs on Wednesday for a game against the Capitals — something that coach Barry Trotz said that, for a lot of people, will be “awkward.” Ovechkin joked that when the Capitals have a power play, Laich is “going to be [on the penalty kill] and I’m going to shoot him in the foot and laugh about it.”
Alzner, after receiving the initial text message from Laich, reflected upon his former teammate’s 12-year tenure with the Capitals. That, Alzner thought, is something that should be treasured, given the rampant shuffling of players between teams in the salary-cap era.
“That’s a guy who, when you think of the Caps, his name always gets mentioned,” Alzner said. “It’s strange, but you’re always looking for your friends to go find greener pastures, and hopefully, for him, Toronto is the place.”