Let’s face it: Brooks Laich likes to talk. A lot.
And with all of those words comes incredible insight. This is a man who has spent 10 years as a member of the Washington Capitals. As the longest tenured pro athlete in D.C., he has seen the team rise from the ashes of mediocrity to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Today, the Capitals are at a crossroads and Laich has some strong opinions on why and how the team has cascaded from the top of the NHL mountain with 121 points in 2009-10 to a non-playoff team with 90 points in 2013-2014.
Let’s take a listen:
On if general manager George McPhee has put the Capitals in a position to succeed:
When you don't have success, the first thing you do, is analyze everything. For myself, I analyze every single thing about myself and about my game and I ask, ‘Why did I fail this year?’ And this starts from the time you're a pro. 'Why didn't you win the Stanley Cup this year?' We had the Presidents' Trophy and we had the number one offense in the league [3.8 goals per game], but we didn't win the Stanley Cup [getting knocked out by Montreal in the first round]. OK, we tried that, but that didn't work. We can't win with just purely offense. So what are we not doing that's going to help us win? And sometimes, you have to take step a back and maybe you don't get 121 points, but maybe you play the right way where your points come down and you don't win as much in the regular season [107 points in 2010-11], but your postseason success and the way you play and the style of play will help you win [the Caps beat the Rangers in five games in Round 1 but were swept by the Lightning in Round 2].
I honestly believe that the closest we've been to winning the Stanley Cup was with Dale Hunter [in 2011-12]. The way we played in that postseason, inside the locker room and on the ice, that was the closest that we felt. That was the best team that we had with the best chance to win the Stanley Cup. I honestly believe that we should have beaten the Rangers [the Caps were eliminated in seven games in Round 2] and from then on, who knows? I believe that we played with such a distaste for giving up goals [2.7 per game]. We suffocated teams, we defended so passionately and took so much pride in that part of the game and we found goals at the other end [2.6 per game]. But the team, the atmosphere, the culture, it was automatic and no one player was different from anybody else. As players, I think we have to get back to that. We have to assess ourselves as individuals. It's not a coaching thing, a general manager thing, an ownership thing. As players we have to take responsibility.
On why the Caps have been unable to carry that same commitment under Adam Oates:
It was a different style. Dale came in and it was a different style. But I believe that a lot of that [commitment/togetherness] is still present and I believe that a lot of things under the current staff are still present from that and that we're on the way back up.
On what the Capitals can learn from this season:
It was a disappointment, but in the grand scheme of things, it might be exactly what we needed. It might humble us and teach us. Listen, you can't take time off when you don't have the puck. When you don't have the puck, you still have to play. You still have to affect the game when you don't have the puck. There are 10 players on the ice, so you're only going to have the puck 10 percent of the time, so you have to affect the game when you don't have the puck. You have to change your way of thinking and I think that as players we really need to watch the playoffs. We need to watch the teams that win and watch their relentlessness and how they work together with a pack mentality. You know, you can't tell if they're forechecking or back checking because it's the same speed all the time. There are a lot of things that as players we have to address and we got away from it.
On whether those lessons should have sunk in by now:
Yeah, it should have. I hate standing here talking about it. You know, you change coaches and things change a little bit, but still as players you should understand what it takes to win. The fault is not on the coaches. The fault is on us as players that we've let this slide. For the majority, this is the same group. It's been the same group that scored in bunches and then defended really well, so there's the ability to do both. But when you don't execute, I believe it's on us as players and we just have to be better. That's the bottom line, we have to be better.
On whether personnel changes need to be made to change that culture:
That's one that I can't answer. That's part of being a player. You just show up and play and outside of that, you don't have any control. It's a tough job to coach, it's a tough job to be a general manager and I get to show up and play the game that I love and do everything I can to help this team win and I also trust that the other people are approaching their jobs the same way. They know that that player is going to show up and do everything in his power to win and I also have the trust in those people. So when you really look at it that simply, it makes it very easy for me to come to the rink and play.
On whether he anticipates a shakeup:
I don't know. One thing I do know is that if you fail, you have to reassess. So we have to look at ourselves, and I can only look at myself as an individual and at my teammates, right? So I want to reassess my game. What can I do to be better and help us win more? Do I have to be more offensive? Do I have to be more defensive? Do I have to go north more often? Look at your game film and see where you can improve and I trust that other players and that other people in positions in this organization will do the same and together we can build it back up.
On what it takes to be a winning team:
I believe we do know how to win. I don’t believe it has yet become our identity. If you are a student of the game and watch how the winning teams win it is robotic and automatic. There is never an element of losing control of the game or of high risk or of hope. There is a systematic way to win. I believe we discovered that under Dale Hunter. In the previous regime [under Bruce Boudreau] we would put up a lot of points, score a lot of goals, but some games we didn’t know if we were going to win them or not. It was a shootout and hope we have more bullets than the other team. We need to discover that identity of knowing how to win. Not hoping. Not just trying to win, but knowing how we are going to execute it as players. I believe we’re a little loose at times. We don’t know what we’re going to get, one way or another. We have to have an identity. A lot of guys do. Some people on our team are automatic. The third line, I could see it blind. Those guys are automatic.
On whether that structure falls on the coaching staff:
I’ve got to say 99.9 percent of it comes from the players. Your coaches are there to support you and teach you stuff you don’t know, and maybe kick you in the butt once in a while. But when we don’t succeed we have to look at ourselves and look at our failures and change your way of thinking. Maybe you think your game is all offense, but in order to win you need to play more defensively. Maybe you play too defensively and we need another goal and you have to work on your ability to make a play. I think it’s all on us.
On how to get individual players to become a unified team:
It’s not calling guys out. It is trying to bring everyone inside the circle so that we are one as a whole, that it’s not 20 different guys. It’s one thought, one mindset, one pulse. And it’ a difficult thing to do and only one team wins. I’ve been here nine full years and we haven’t won a Stanley Cup. We really need to learn.
On whether Adam Oates gave his player too much credit by saying, “be a professional”:
As a professional hockey player, I don’t believe that any one player should ever need to be babysat. You are the elite of the elite, you’re paid handsomely for it, and results are expected. If you want to be here long-term you damn well better show up and work. I don’t think a coach should have to come in and say, ‘C’mon, man. Can you do this for us, buddy? We’d really like it if you did this for us.’ This is professional hockey. There’s a million other guys right now that would love to be standing right here. So if my butt’s not in gear or somebody else’s, see you later. You’re out. I don’t believe a coach should ever have to pamper a guy and bring him along.