Welcome back to "Capital Letters," an aptly titled and sporadic feature in which I answer any and all questions regarding the local professional hockey team. Please send all questions to @AdamVingan and follow me anyway because my mother will think that I'm more popular.
As I write this, I'm currently hopped up on Advil Cold & Sinus. And with the Capitals in Denver on Thursday to face the Avalanche, I could use that particular headline without being completely smutty!
This is a great question and a currently intriguing development for the Capitals. Coach Barry Trotz has frequently spoken of how Laich's injury-induced absence (and previously Tom WIlson's) has prevented him from properly balancing his lineup and rolling four lines, echoing that sentiment following practice Wednesday.
"We miss him," Trotz told colleague Alex Prewitt. "There’s no question, he’s a piece that balances everything out for us really well. To this point in time, when he’s not in the lineup, you can tell.”
Laich, who injured his shoulder against the Panthers on Oct. 18, has played once in the past month: a 3-2 Washington victory against Chicago on Nov. 7. He has since admitted that he rushed back in order to help the Capitals snap their five-game losing streak, which they did, but at the cost of delaying his recovery.
“He’s obviously gone through a tough period injury wise,” general manager Brian MacLellan said last week. “He has the attitude he wants to play through injuries too. He almost demands himself to come back as soon as he can and sometimes that might hinder his progress as far as injuries. I think we have to make choices on when guys should come back, and possibly prevent further aggravating things, or what’s the best thing for a player.
“I guess in my mind now, we need to get him 100 percent. The shoulder has to be 100 percent. The other issues seem to be fine. We just want him healthy, because he’s going to be a contributor to our team, so we’ve got to quit doing these false starts with him.”
According to Trotz, “there’s a good chance for the weekend" when the Capitals host the Sabres on Saturday that Laich could return. If and when he does, his insertion into the lineup will have a sort of domino effect.
Personally, I like Laich as the third-line center in between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, which is where he played in his last game against the Blackhawks. While that particular trio hasn't been incredibly effective in very limited ice time this season, I can't imagine Trotz tinkering with his top six (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Wilson, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Troy Brouwer) to accommodate Laich.
It really leaves questions about the bottom half of Washington's forward corps. Can Eric Fehr be the "finisher" the Capitals are looking for on the fourth line next to Evgeny Kuznetsov? Who becomes the regular forward scratch or gets assigned to the American Hockey League: Liam O'Brien, Michael Latta, Jay Beagle or Chris Brown?
The Capitals are a better team with a healthy Laich, but unfortunately they have had very little of that in the past two-plus seasons; he has missed 82 regular-season games since the start of the 2012-13 season. I think he can thrive under Trotz's tutelage, but we need to see him on the ice first.
As I alluded to in the previous question, I think Kuznetsov is a third- or fourth-line center for the foreseeable future. With the right skaters surrounding him, he can provide matchup nightmares for opposing teams. That should allow him to produce more at even strength; Kuznetsov has just two 5-on-5 assists in 17 games.
In regards to Wilson, since joining Ovechkin and Backstrom on Washington's first line, he has steamrolled everything that moves, but the offensive production hasn't materialized. In roughly 69 minutes of even-strength ice time with Wilson, Ovechkin and Backstrom have recorded about 48 percent of total shot attempts and combined for one goal. When apart from Wilson, that percentage increases to about 54 percent.
Against the Coyotes on Tuesday, those three were the Capitals' worst possession players, though they also started the fewest shifts in the offensive zone. I am guilty of wondering whether it was time to try someone else in Wilson's place. but a few more games are probably needed before anyone can make a true determination.
Watching Filip Forsberg flourish for the Predators this season -- nine goals, 22 points and an NHL-best plus-20 rating, among other strong statistics -- has left Capitals fans absolutely apoplectic.
For those unfamiliar with this story, the Capitals traded Forsberg, the 11th pick in the 2012 draft, to the Predators in April 2013 for veteran Martin Erat and Latta. Of course, Erat's tenure in Washington was an unmitigated disaster, scoring twice in 62 games before requesting a trade, which the Capitals executed last season in a swap with the Coyotes, landing Brown in the transaction.
ESPN's Craig Custance provided some excellent context to the entire situation recently. According to Custance, some within the organization weren't sold on Forsberg, who looked "timid" and "slow" at that summer's development camp. "With pressure from ownership to make the playoffs during the lockout-shortened season," the Capitals opted to trade Forsberg for Erat in a win-now move that was uncharacteristic of former general manager George McPhee.
Those internal doubters were obviously mistaken.
The trade, if Forsberg continues to develop into the dynamic player he has shown to be, will likely go down as one of the most lopsided in recent NHL history. Does it hurt my heart? No, because I'm not emotionally invested. But the Capitals may certainly be rueing that day -- April 3, 2013, to be exact -- for a long time.
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