After watching Brooks Laich miss eleven games between November 27 and December 22, there were likely many people in the Washington Capitals organization who felt much joy as he returned against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night. The center had been missing due to a persistent groin injury — which was related to an abdominal injury incurred during the 2012-13 season — and came back to much effect, playing in 13:23 and looking to have not missed a beat. It appeared that the only way to go was up, both for Laich and the Capitals organization.
But just as things had looked to have made a turn for the better, they came back crashing to earth. On Friday morning it was announced by Capitals head coach Adam Oates that Laich will sit out the team’s next game against the New York Rangers in what was labelled as a precautionary measure for now. There is no doubting that this is hard to believe after the center had just sat out a month for an injury that was constantly called a day-to-day injury, and it is also crystal clear that Washington needs him to succeed during the current season.
One of the chief reasons that the Capitals need Laich back in the fold is so that they can move on from Martin Erat, who is unhappy in Washington and has already requested a trade. If Laich comes back then Erat will not be needed as a third line center — a role that does not fit him anyways — and the team will be allowed the opportunity to sit on their heels and wait for a trade package which meets their demands.
Slotting Laich into the third line center role will also allow the Capitals to have one of the best top three center combinations in the NHL, as Nicklas Backstrom and Mikhail Grabovski are already playing at an all-world level. Whereas the latter two are usually known for their scoring punch, bringing in the injured center will bring a level of physicality to the fold that Erat will never be able to duplicate and complement offense with defense.
Being a third line grinder may not be the flashiest of roles, but it is the type of player that can change a playoff series. There’s no doubt that Washington wants to finally land the Stanley Cup. With wingers such as Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, it would be impossible to envision Laich not combining up to form a physically imposing group that can both score goals and wear down defenders, in turn making it easier for the top two lines to score.
Finally, bringing back Laich will shore up the Capitals’ penalty kill unit, which currently sits at 16th in the NHL at a 81.9 kill percentage. In his return the center played 4:20 with a man down, and Washington held the Ducks to an 0-for-3 outing with the extra man as the unit looked much more assured as a whole. Although this is only one game, after watching him serve as a key cog on the penalty kill in past years it can be assured Laich would make the group much more successful.
In the end, bringing Laich back into the fold on a consistent basis could likely determine whether the Capitals are true Stanley Cup contenders or not. With his services the team will have a truly great top three center combination and will also have one of the top third lines in the NHL. This may not seem important, but for a team that ranks seventh in the league in goals per game it is clear keeping the pucks out of the net will be more valuable than putting them in.