Does Brooks Like Washington Enough to Stay?

One month after the Capitals were ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Second Round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the loss hasn’t gotten any easier to swallow.  Nonetheless, once the Stanley Cup Finals come to a close either tonight or later this week, the Caps’ management must turn their attention to next season.

First up on the docket for General Manager George McPhee is deciding what to do with a couple of key unrestricted free agents, starting with Brooks Laich.  

Let me start by saying that Laich is a difficult player to put a price tag on, because his contributions to the Capitals can’t be measured simply on goals, assists and points.  He is what coaches refer to as a “glue guy” meaning that he helps unify the team, and is the kind of player that can be counted upon in almost any situation.

More importantly, on a team stocked with talented yet sometimes enigmatic stars, Laich is one of the most consistent players, as he gives every ounce of effort he has virtually every night.  He is a tireless forechecker, a responsible defensive forward and a key cog on the Capitals’ powerplay, so in essence, Laich has been the team’s jack-of-all-trades for the last four seasons.

Once considered to be a grinder, Laich broke out during the 2007-08 season for 21 goals, and followed that up with two seasons of at least 23 goals and 53 points, which are very respectable numbers for a player who doesn’t always find himself on a scoring line.

Last season, Laich’s numbers dipped to 16 goals and 48 points, but that has more to do with the Capitals’ struggles on the powerplay than it does a decrease in his effort or intensity.  Furthermore, in the playoffs, where stars like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin disappeared for periods of time, Laich continued to produce, posting seven points in nine games.

Of course, like I said before, Laich’s contributions go far beyond the score sheet, and one must hope that George McPhee recognizes that.

Off the ice, Laich is one of the team’s most popular players, and has become something of a cult figure for Washington area sports fans.  That’s because as fans, we care about what kind of people our favorite athletes are away from the rink, and there are few better than Laich in that respect.

One example of this could be seen after the Capitals were eliminated by Montreal in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as Laich spotted a stranded motorist on his way home from the game, and helped the woman change her tire and made sure she got home safely.  Another example of this quality was on display when Laich organized a players-only dinner after being defeated by Pittsburgh in the 2009 Playoffs, in order to unite the team for one last time, since it was widely assumed that many of the team’s older players wouldn’t return.

As the Boston Bruins have showed throughout these Playoffs, team unity and chemistry is of the utmost importance to teams hoping to contend for the Cup, and Laich is a key component of both for the Capitals.  Losing him would not only be a blow to the team on the ice, but more importantly it would leave a huge void in the Caps’ locker room.

Brooks Laich’s priority is winning the Stanley Cup, and he’s always seemed like he believes that he can do it with this group in Washington.  However, after another disappointing Playoff exit, one has to wonder whether he’s contemplating leaving town to join another contender, especially if the number at the bottom of his contract is higher than it would be in D.C.

Fortunately for the Capitals, most of the teams that are considered ‘contenders’ don’t have any more cap space than Washington does, which means the offers they’re able to send Laich’s way won’t be substantially higher.

In light of the team’s current salary cap situation, they could probably make an offer of somewhere around $3 million a season to Laich, and still get good bang for their buck.  Assuming the salary cap moves to $61 or $62 million for next season, as reported, the Capitals will have roughly $10 million in cap space, and signing Laich and blue chip young defenseman Karl Alzner are the top priorities.

Ultimately, the bigger question is whether Laich wants to return to Washington, and continue to try and bring home the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.  He has always seemed to love being a part of this team, and is very well-respected by his teammates, so I’m inclined to believe that he’ll opt to stay.

Laich blossomed into a legitimate top-six forward during his time with the Capitals, and has been a big part of the nucleus that this team has been built around.  The Capitals’ management took a chance on Brooks Laich when they traded franchise winger Peter Bondra to Ottawa in exchange for Laich in 2004, so now it’s time to see if Laich will return the favor this summer.

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