When Capitals general manager George McPhee acquired left wing Marty Erat from the Nashville Predators at the NHL trade deadline last season, he insisted that hard-nosed center Michael Latta be part of the deal.
Maybe it was because he knew Matt Hendricks would not be returning and thought Latta, 22, could fill his skates.
“He’s a pretty frisky guy, plays the game real hard and the scouts have liked the way he’s played over the last couple seasons,” McPhee said. “He’s going to get a good look.”
Latta said he was “shocked” by the trade to Washington but now that Hendricks has left the Capitals for, ironically, a four-year contract in Nashville, he sees an opportunity in front of him.
“I see [Hendricks] leave and I’m sure a lot of Caps fans are kind of upset,” Latta said. “I heard nothing but good things about him as a guy. But he leaves and maybe that opens up a spot for me. You never know. It’s nice for me personally and selfishly that he’s gone, but we’ll see. Hopefully, I can do what he did.”
Latta was a third-round pick of the Predators in 2009, taken 72nd overall. He returned to the Guelph Storm of the OHL, where he played one season against a 16-year-old Tom Wilson, who two years later would be a first-round pick of the Caps.
Wilson said it didn’t take long to know where Latta was on the ice.
“You don’t want to be on the other side when you’re playing against him,” Wilson said of the 5-foot-11, 201-pound fireball. “He’s a wrecking ball. He’ll go out and hit guys. He’s a huge team guy. He’ll do whatever your team needs and stick up for guys.”
In his last two years with the AHL Milwaukee Admirals Latta carved a niche as a shut-down, third-line center willing to drop the gloves. He accumulated 22 goals, 39 assists and 284 penalty minutes in two seasons with the Admirals before getting dealt to the Caps and being assigned to Hershey.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Latta said. “Looking back I’m really happy, but I was kind of shocked at first. I didn’t know too much about Washington but in the past few months I got to know a lot of the systems and coaches and I’m happy to be here now.”
Newly appointed Hershey Bears coach Mike Haviland coached against Latta last season as an associate coach in Norfolk and believes he’s on the cusp of breaking into the NHL.
“He jumped out at me because he’s in your face; he disrupted other teams; he got our team off a little bit,” Haviland said. “Those guys are invaluable to be a successful team and I think he’s got a bright future.”
Latta says he’d like to earn the role of a shut-down center in the NHL.
“On a team you need everything,” he said. “You need your playmakers, your shut down defensemen. Look at the Stanley Cup playoffs. You saw a lot of grit. Guys on L.A. and Boston, they’re in your face. You need that to win. I appreciate that side of the game and I think a lot of people do.”
Latta arrived at Kettler for the first day of development camp on Monday to get a taste of the Caps’ system and is hoping to make a stronger impression in September.
“I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “I hope I come to camp and make a good impression and stick with the club If not, I’ll go down to to Hershey and play for coach [Mike] Haviland. But my goal, and everyone’s goal, is to make the big club.”