By Adam Vingan
Less than 24 hours after being swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Washington Capitals returned to their second home, Kettler Capitals Iceplex, before heading back to their actual homes for the summer. After head coach Bruce Boudreau and general manager George McPhee discussed the former’s future, the players arrived to talk about theirs. Nine current Caps stand to become either restricted or unrestricted free agents come July 1 and some of the players in question answered questions about a possible return to Washington:
Karl Alzner: “I’d love to [return]. This team has still got a great chance, if everybody that’s here decides to come back and everyone sticks around, still has a great chance. With the playoffs and all that, we kinda have everything behind us.”
Jason Arnott: “Absolutely. I had a lot of fun here, learned a lot. Tried to teach as much as I could. Guys really responded and made me feel like I was part of the team right away. This city’s fantastic, the organization’s top notch. It definitely would be my first choice to come back and try to win here.”
Scott Hannan: “You know, it’s a place where me and my family definitely fit in. There’s a great group of guys in this room. I’d love to be back. But we’ll see how things happen. It’s a long way. We’ll have to sit down with my family. Maybe we’ll talk to Washington here in the next little while.”
Of course these players and the team as a whole are disappointed with the way things transpired. But there was one player in particular who did not express any sort of enthusiasm, even when discussing a possible return:
Brooks Laich: “Yeah, I haven’t thought a lot about that. The focus is obviously on trying to win the Stanley Cup. Just sit down with my agent and discuss what he has in mind. I haven’t talked to him, I haven’t talked to George. We haven’t talked about anything. Focused on winning. Today, I am still signed as a Washington Capital and that’s how I approach it. I was signed to play this year and I put all my efforts into that.”
Not necessarily a ringing endorsement from Laich, who is possibly the most coveted free agent-to-be on the Caps’ roster, especially considering McPhee’s claim that he “[doesn’t know] that there’s a whole lot out there.” Laich would be an asset to any organization that signs him, but will that organization be the Washington Capitals for a seventh year?
Only Boyd Gordon, Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr have been in Washington longer than Laich, who arrived in 2004. The Caps acquired Laich from the Ottawa Senators February 18, 2004, along with Ottawa’s second-round choice in the 2005 Entry Draft and future considerations for one of the cornerstone players in Caps franchise history, Peter Bondra. While Washington lost one of its most recognizable faces, they gained a player that soon became one.
Laich has played in at least 70 games in each of his six seasons, including all 82 games three of the last four years. He is a three-time 20-goal scorer and is one of the “heart and soul” Caps (and if you ask the ladies, he’s easy on the eyes, too). It is because Laich wears his heart on his sleeve that he has endeared himself to Caps fans. Yet, it is the same honesty that makes such uncertainty about his future harder to take.
During HBO’s “24/7” miniseries, which chronicled the Caps at the peak of their adversity, there was one simple shot of Laich in the locker room bemoaning the struggles of his team during an eight-game losing streak. Laich simply said, “I’m sick of this sh*t.” Thursday, Laich was just as candid.
“Standing here sucks. Every time you have to do an exit interview, you’re not smiling. It’s no fun at all. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into trying to win the Stanley Cup. You put a year of your life into that and it doesn’t happen. It’s tough to take.”
What was most striking about the quote from “24/7” and Laich’s interview Thursday was that there was no difference between his tone or his facial expression in both situations. He looked pensive, almost lost in thought as he paused between sentences to formulate them. Laich, like most of the current Caps, has been a part of four consecutive postseason disappointments and perhaps such constant disappointment has finally taken its toll.
Laich’s current contract paid him about $2 million per season and he has certainly earned a raise for his play. Laich has been a constant in the Caps’ lineup for years now and McPhee said Thursday that he is already looking at next year:
“In my own mind, I know, and I could see it during the series and all through the playoffs what I want to do for next season, and it’s crazy, even during games, I’m writing down lineups for next year based on the way things are going, the way people are playing and what we have in our organization.”
There is not another Laich within the Capitals organization, but it seems that he does not even know if he wants to continue here:
“I just hope at the end of the day that there’s a hockey team that allows me to play hockey next year.”
Whether or not McPhee included Laich in his plans for next season, none of that matters if Laich does not include himself.