Capitals Questions: What Happens to Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera?

This is the first in a series of articles leading up to training camp detailing the most pressing questions facing the Washington Capitals heading into the 2015-16 season.

For the past six seasons Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera have been Washington Capitals teammates, and each of those years they have been considered at a minimum to be top-nine forward mainstays for the team heading into the season. During that time their roles have become strikingly similar, but as we stare down the beginning of training camp and the 2015-16 season, those roles may in jeopardy for the first time.

Laich and Chimera are both leaders in the dressing room, key penalty killers, and solid two-way players who give great effort and have enough skill to score the occasional big goal. Despite those qualities, the pair enters the 2015-16 campaign for the first time possibly wondering exactly what the team has planned for them.

From a franchise perspective this is a great problem to have. It means that the team might be deeper than ever at forward thanks to the addition of top-six talents T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams in the off-season paired the emergence of young skill players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Then there is the pressing need to find out if former first-round draft pick Tom Wilson, entering his third NHL season, is going to develop into more than a career fourth-line enforcer.

Longtime Caps vet Jason Chimera will have to earn top-nine minutes this year. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Longtime Caps vet Jason Chimera will have to earn top-nine minutes this year. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

When you do the math it all adds up to either Laich or Chimera – and possibly both of them – dropping to the fourth line. Superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, as well as newcomers Oshie and Williams, are top-six locks heading into camp, which opens in about three weeks. Kuznetsov, who improved throughout last season and became a key offensive contributor in the playoffs, also figures to have a spot locked up, with Burakovsky and still-young veteran Marcus Johansson competing for the final top-six slot.

Caps general manager Brian MacLellan has hinted more than once that he feels Wilson is a future top-six guy. Having him playing fourth-line minutes and fighting every night is not going to allow Wilson to show what he is capable of, nor will it allow him to progress and become a complete player. So you have to think that he enters camp penciled into a third-line wing slot along with either Johansson or Burakovsky.

That leaves Laich and Chimera competing for the final piece to that third-line puzzle, possibly along with re-signed RFA Jay Beagle and possibly prospects such as Riley Barber and Stanislav Galiev.

An Open Competition

Laich and Beagle both hold an advantage over Chimera in terms of versatility as each has proven to be effective playing both wing and center. Beagle also kills penalties well and factors into the special-teams equation. Mostly a fourth-liner in parts of seven seasons with the Caps, the 29-year-old Beagle had a career year offensively last season with 10 goals and 10 assists in 62 games. He is Barry Trotz’ type of player, showing that he had enough skill to be effective in almost any role last season as he bounced up and down the lineup based on the team’s needs.

Chimera, on the other hand, tallied just 7-12-19 in 77 games, but had a good postseason with 3-4-7 in 14 contests. Laich has struggled through injuries since 2012-13 and has not regained the offensive form that at one point saw him record three-straight seasons with between 21 and 25 goals and no fewer than 16 goals in a five-year span. He has played 9, 51 and 66 games the past three campaigns and not scored more than eight goals. Last season he finished with 7-13-20 and just 1-1-2 in the postseason.

“I’m not sure,” MacLellan told reporters in a recent teleconference when asked his thoughts on who might emerge as the third-line center. “I don’t think it’s set in the coach’s or the manager’s mind. I think we’re going to try different people. These guys all should be capable of all handling it.”

Keep in mind that Johansson also is a capable center if Chimera is deemed to be the answer as a wing on the third line, and MacLellan sees Burakovsky as a potential future NHL pivot.

“He could play any position: right wing, center or left wing,” MacLellan said about Burakovsky. “He’s just that good. Marcus I’d like to see more on the wing than at center.”

Jay Beagle
Jay Beagle may be considered for the third line after a career offensive year. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

With Beagle trending up and younger than both Chimera (36) and Laich (32), who both seem to be on the downswing offensively, it’s not a stretch at all to think that the third line could end up looking something like this: Johansson-Beagle-Wilson. If that’s the case the Caps would be looking at placing longtime key contributors in their 30s on the fourth line. Both players are consummate pros, so it seems unlikely that they would complain openly or pout.

“{The depth} gives the coaches opportunities to try different combinations,” MacLellan said. “If Barry wants to have a defensive line, I think we’d go with Laich or Beagle. If we were to go offensive, we’d play one of the other guys.”

Trade Rumblings?

And while it also appears unlikely with the team’s added forward depth that the Caps would rush Barber or Galiev to the NHL, what if one of them shows in camp that he’s ready? If that happens then either Laich or Chimera could be expendable. If another team suffers a training-camp or early-season injury, one of those guys might be a great fit and allow the Caps to trade for an NHL-caliber veteran depth defenseman as an insurance policy for the youthful third pairing of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov.

Laich would be tougher to move with a $4.5 million salary due to him over the next two seasons, while Chimera will make $2 million this year before becoming a UFA. Still, Laich is four years younger, so a team that thinks it is on the cusp of a being a Stanley Cup contender and believes that he might regain his scoring touch could be willing to make a deal for him.

Either way, the increased depth leaves the Caps in good shape if the injury bug hits and provides them with a couple of solid veterans to dangle at the trade deadline if they feel they are one piece away from making a Cup run. It also should create intense competition in training camp, which is always a good thing and might be just what a player with Laich’s ability needs to get his offensive game back on track and be an effective top-nine guy.

And if Laich and Chimera stick around as fourth-liners and top-nine emergency plug-ins, they will continue to play key roles as dressing-room leaders, mentors for the young players, penalty killers and lead-by-example guys. And the fans will be happy. So no matter how you slice it, the forward situation appears to be a win-win for the Washington Capitals.