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Brooks Laich is a great player, but he is not an ideal fit as a center.
Now before you all rip me for this selection, let me say that I am a huge Brooks Laich fan. He is one of my absolute favorite players on the Caps, and if Ovechkin was ever stripped of the "C" on his jersey, I think Laich warrants consideration as a replacement.
All that aside, Laich is being slotted as the Caps' second-line center. There is no question that Laich can be a very good center. The problem is that despite McPhee's belief that Laich is a natural center, the statistics seem to indicate otherwise.
The other problem is that if McPhee truly believes this, will he forgo signing a true second-line center, such as Grabovski, due to some misplaced confidence in Laich?
Statistically, Laich has had his better seasons when he has been playing primarily on the wing as opposed to being a center, regardless of what the program says his position is supposed to be.
Laich's first 20-goal season came in 2007-08, when the Caps started their current consecutive playoff run. Though Laich was listed as a center, he saw a lot of time at right wing and was a mainstay on the Caps' third line with Eric Fehr playing left wing and Dave Steckel playing center.
Laich would end up with 21 goals and 16 assists that season. He also collected a goal and five assists in the Caps' seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The following season would see much of the same, although the Caps did show more flexibility with Laich. Sometimes he would play center. Then again, he was frequently moved out to left wing on a line centered by Steckel and with Matt Bradley playing right wing.
For the 2008-09 season, Laich had 23 goals and 30 assists for a career high 53 points. Laich also had another solid outing in the playoffs with three goals and four assists.
The Caps experimenting with Laich as a true second-line center came during the 2009-10 season. Sergei Fedorov left the Capitals and thus began the Caps' seemingly annual search for a second-line center. Laich assumed much of this role during the 2009-10 season, and he played very well.
Then again, the entire team smashed all sorts of team offensive records en route to the President's Trophy that season. Statistically, Laich had his best season yet with 25 goals and 34 assists. Laich did his best to keep the Caps alive in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens as he had two goals and an assist. Alas, it was not enough as the Caps fell in seven games.
The experiment, however, took a turn for the worse during the 2010-11 season. Laich was pretty much the full-time second-line center, but he struggled in this role. He scored just 16 goals and had only 32 assists, an 11-point reduction.
On the positive side of things, he was a plus-14 during the 2010-11 season. He was also pretty decent at the faceoff circle, winning 51.3 percent of his draws.
In 2011-12, though, Laich's struggles as the second-line center continued. Laich scored 16 goals and 25 assists. But he was also a minus-eight as opposed to the plus-14 rating he had the year previously. His faceoff win percentage dipped sharply, down to 47.6 percent. In the playoffs, he was only marginally better with a 48.6 percent win ratio.
This is why as far as centers go, Laich is the weak link on the team. No one plays harder than Laich, but he is just not the natural center that McPhee wants us to believe he is. His declining win percentage on faceoffs and his negative efficiency rating the last time he played a full season have to be a bit of a concern.
And here is why what McPhee says does not make any sense: If Laich was such a natural fit for a second-line center, then why did McPhee trade for Mike Ribeiro in the first place? When the Ribeiro trade went down, didn't pretty much everyone anoint him as the new second-line center?
So what changed during the past season, a season that saw Laich play in only nine games while Ribeiro was one of the most consistent players on the entire roster? Did I miss something along the way that should have convinced me that Laich was a better solution as a second-line center than Ribeiro?
I already know I did not miss anything—and neither did you.
Laich needs to be on the wing where he can add flexibility, depth, balance and creativity to the Caps' lines. Can he play some center too? Absolutely.
But naming Laich as the second-line center—with the statistics showing this is not the best use of his talents—and not making a move for a true second-line center like Grabovski is what makes Laich the weak link on the Caps as far as centers are concerned.