BALLSTON, VA - In 2004, the Washington Capitals were in the midst of a fire sale. The team's attempt to win with a roster full of high-priced talent had failed and the Caps decided to move in a different direction by trading away their stars, including Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang. That February, Washington traded away Peter Bondra, one of the franchise's most recognizable faces, to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a faceless player along with a draft pick and future considerations. That faceless player was a rookie named Brooks Laich.
When Laich entered Verizon Center - then known as MCI Center - for the first time, he met general manager George McPhee, who shook Laich's hand and told him that he hoped he would be there for the next 15 years. Laich has a long way to go to reach those 15 years, having only been with the Caps for six. But on Tuesday, he got closer to that mark when he agreed on a six-year contract extension with Washington that will pay him $27 million through 2017.
"When I was leaving D.C. [this year], George was asking if I want to return and I said, 'George, I never forgot that comment you told me my first day in D.C.,'" Laich said. 'I want to be back.' To make a comment like that, it makes somebody feel a real sense of loyalty. I never forgot that comment."
With Laich's extension came a collective sigh of relief from many in the Capitals fan base, which was afraid that the team would lose one of its hardest-working and versatile players. Laich has missed just four games in the last four seasons and has scored 85 goals in that span. He logs significant minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill, and has spent most of his recent time as a winger despite center being his natural position. All of this played into several media outlets pegging Laich as one of the top free agent forwards when free agency began Friday.
But for Laich and McPhee, having the former stay in Washington was never a question.
"There was never a serious consideration to go anywhere else," Laich said. "My main goal was to get back with Washington. All along I didn't pay any attention to that buzz of going to this team or going to that team because I knew it wasn't happening. I knew all along that Washington wanted me back, and I knew I wanted to be back. It was just a matter of figuring out the details."
"We certainly always wanted him back," McPhee said, acknowledging that it is hard to find players with enormous character such as Laich's. "We had a great conversation at the end of the season. Obviously, he told us that he wanted to come back, but you never know in negotiation how it's going to go. Once we got our head around the term and the salary and everything else and got to that sweet spot, it was done. You realize that this a guy that we'd like to have and this is the right number, let's do it."
Despite the Caps' recent string of poor playoff performances - including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in May - Laich admitted that he would not have re-signed if he did not feel that the Caps were moving in the right direction. Most of Washington's biggest stars, such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green, are still young compared to those on other perennial Stanley Cup contenders and the idea of several opportunities to win championships was too good to pass up.
"If you look at some of the other teams that are Cup contenders, if you look at San Jose, if you look at Detroit, their best players are already late in their 20s, early 30s," Laich said. "If you look at our team, the core of our team and our best, most talented players are still young and still getting better. The main core of the team is very young and if you can keep that together, you're looking at having a chance to win a championship for potentially the next 10 years rather than just a window of two or three years. That was a great motivator to get me re-signed."
With that in mind, the Caps still have yet to get past the second round during Laich's tenure. Laich has never been one to mince words and he knows that things must change within the locker room if the Caps are going to finally be taken seriously as Cup threats.
"This year I think there's got to be a lot more accountability amongst our players to each other and to the coaches," Laich said. "It's up to every single player. It doesn't matter how much you make or how long you've been here or what your name is, to practice as hard as they can, to practice as a team, to work as a team."
The addition of former Stanley Cup champion Troy Brouwer during Friday's first round of the 2011 NHL Draft will only help, but the Caps have shown faith in Laich with his new contract and the time is now for him to step up and continue to lead them to unprecedented glory.
"The regular season success has been great, but now it's time to take it to the next level, which is the postseason," Laich said. "And you have to learn that it takes time for young players, young teams to learn how to win at that time. And that's obviously the next level for us."
Laich may have come to the Caps in exchange for one of the franchise's faces, but now he has officially become one.