Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Other Centre

brooks laich canada capitals
The Leafs’ desperate need for a true number one centre isn’t a secret. Tyler Bozak was incapable of handling such a role, which isn’t surprising considering he was entering his first full season as an NHLer. Only in Toronto would the media ask whether Tyler Bozak was a true number one centre. Of course he wasn’t! He was the Leafs' only option in what was still a re-building season.

With Brad Richards all but gone from Dallas, there is a true number one centre with star quality available come July 1st. The Leafs have ample cap space and Brian Burke is known to covet star players. Richards seems like a perfect fit in Toronto, but the Leafs won’t be the only team vying for the former Conn Smythe winner’s services. Both the New York Rangers and LA Kings have plenty of cap space and a need for a number one centre as well. Look for the price tag to sky-rocket if these three teams start trying to out-bid each other.

If the Leafs do indeed sign Brad Richards, Tyler Bozak will receive third line duties. His ugly -29 rating doesn’t really scream third line centre and his advanced metrics (from Behind the Net) don’t really disprove that notion.

Bozak did score 27 points in 37 games during his rookie season before struggling for long stretches this past season, so there is hope that he can rebound with a strong 2011. However, Bozak is already 25-years-old and maybe his offensive game won’t develop much further. Is he going to fall into the dreaded void in between the second and third line where he’s not offensive enough to play in the top-six, but not defensive enough to play in the bottom-six?

If the Leafs decide they aren’t prepared to experiment with Bozak on the third line there is another centreman available that could fill in nicely.

Brooks Laich will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st if the Washington Capitals don't re-sign him and he could become a valuable asset for the Leafs.

Laich is a versatile player who played both centre and wing for the Capitals. Laich spent most of last season playing on a line with Marcus Johnansson and Alex Semin and scored 48 points, which was down from the 59 he scored the previous season. Before this season's 16 goals, Laich registered three straight 20+ goal seasons.

Laich has been an everything man for the Capitals averaging close to 19 minutes a night playing on both the power-play and the penalty kill this season. In fact, among forwards, Laich averaged the most time on the Capitals’ second ranked penalty kill. I don't have to tell you the Leafs are in severe need of an upgrade in this department. He also spent close to three minutes a game on the powerplay, which was the most of any forward not named Ovechkin, Semin, or Backstrom.

Laich is also a physical player, throwing 113 hits, which was only two less than Clarke MacArthur, the forward who led the Leafs in hits. Laich is also willing to sacrifice the body, blocking over 50 shots, which was second among Capital forwards behind, surpisingly, Nicklas Backstrom. This total would also rank Laich second among Leaf forwards, behind only Tim Brent.

Despite his physical play, Laich has actually remained relatively healthy throughout his career. Over the past four seasons, Laich has only missed four games due to injury.

In the face-off circle, Laich actually took the fifth most face-offs of any forward, suggesting he wasn’t their primary option, which is understandable considering he only won 51.3% of his draws (as a comparison, David Steckel won close to 64%). However, he won more face-offs in the defensive zone than any other Washington forward (Steckel won more over the course of the season, but he was traded to the Devils at the deadline).

The advanced metrics suggest that Laich was one of the team’s better defensive forwards relative to the quality of competition he faced and was only slightly worse than linemate Marcus Johansson, who was the team’s best defensive forward. He has accumulated a +30 rating over the past two seasons in Washington, although finding a player with a negative +/- rating is hard on Washington, so this probably isn’t the most useful statistic to judge Laich on.

Similar to Colby Armstrong, Laich could fill in on the top-two scoring lines if needed because that’s where he primarily played in Washington, but he might be better suited for a third line role. If Laich centred Armstrong and perhaps Nazem Kadri next season, that would be a pretty strong third line.

I’m unsure why the Capitals wouldn’t sign the soon-to-be 28-year-old, but if he makes it to July 1st the Leafs should express interest. Laich is currently making slightly under $2.1 million. If the Leafs are able to sign Laich somewhere in the range of $3 million, that would be an excellent deal (although I can already hear the cries of giving another third liner $3 million). Anything approaching $3.5 - 4 + million would probably generate expectations of the 59 point player Laich was last season, which I think was a product of playing on a run-and-gun Capitals team.

If Laich does become a free agent, the bidding might drive up the price well over $3 million, and, if that occurs, I think the Leafs would be wise to walk away from those sweepstakes, especially if they intend to use Laich on the third line.

If none of this convinces you, just remember how nails Laich was during HBO’s 24/7. Oh, and this video might provide another reason.


Matt Horner said...

The more I think about it, the more I think some team will sign Laich to be their #1 C.

Anonymous said...

God I hate Ovechkin

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