Latta Trade Pushes Capitals in a New Direction

The warning signs for the looming end of Michael Latta’s time with the Washington Capitals came early when he became a healthy scratch when other Caps players came back onto the roster after recovering from injuries. When he stopped seeing ice time in late February, it was clear that the Caps hadn’t found a spot for him in their lineup and weren’t planning on creating one.

Though these are fairly ominous signs for an NHL player hoping for their team to retain them, it still seemed like Latta might have a chance to stay on the team; with a qualifying offer of just over $630,000, Latta was a fairly inexpensive player to retain, especially compared to fellow free agents such as Marcus Johansson at $3.75 million. Accordingly, the Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan announced a month before the deadline that he intended to retain four restricted free agents from the team, including Latta. Nevertheless, when the trade deadline hit, Latta had received no qualifying offer from the Capitals and so entered the pool of free agents, eventually being picked up by the Los Angeles Kings.

The 2015-2016 season was arguably the best of Latta’s career. He ended with seven points, the most of any NHL season he’s played; nonetheless, he ended up scratched and then unretained.

The Offer That Never Came

Latta plays with constant energy. He’s a grinder; that can be very valuable, especially in teams like the Capitals, who despite being loaded with talent at times hit lackluster streaks that end hopeful playoff runs. He started the most fights of any player on the team (and won most of them) and he was one of the most active presences for the Capitals on social media, widely publicizing his friendship with teammates Tom Wilson (who received the qualifying offer he did not) and Andre Burakovsky. 

In a lot of ways, Latta embodied the spirit of the Capitals, a team that needs this kind of energy more than ever after yet another disappointing early playoff exit. But Latta wasn’t retained, mostly because the Capitals couldn’t fit him into the lineup, and the fact that they couldn’t says a lot about the amount of talent on the team as well as what kind of lines MacLellan is hoping to put on the ice this season.

Latta’s fate may have been sealed when the Capitals picked up Lars Eller from the Canadiens. Eller will likely play as a third or fourth line center, a spot that Latta wasn’t being picked to fill even before the trade. Eller puts up an average of many more points a season than Latta, ending last year with 29 to Latta’s seven. Eller is the kind of forward the MacLellan is choosing to fill the roster with. The GM announced earlier this year that he was planning on working to strengthen the third and fourth lines, and evidently that would end up not involving Latta.

The Impact of Losing Latta

Will this end up being a good trade for the Capitals? It at the very least will most likely not be as lambasted as the trade to get Latta in the first place (for which the Capitals gave up Filip Forsberg in one of the most famously lopsided trades in NHL history.) Latta wasn’t seeing much playing time towards the end of the season, so his absence might not be immediately noticeable at the start of the 2016-2017 season; what’s more significant is what his trade says for the future of the Capitals.

MacLellan is making moves to acquire significant depth in his forwards in hopes that insistent padding of a talented roster will pay off in terms of on-ice performance, and perhaps specifically in one-ice playoff performance. After all, the Capitals had no trouble finishing with the President’s trophy during the regular season only to fall in the second round of the playoffs. Latta didn’t play in this year’s playoffs at all and played four games to end with a -1 rating in the 2014-2015 playoffs. If MacLellan is focusing on building a team that will finally be able to make it past the Conference Finals, then that might explain why the relatively low price of retaining Latta didn’t end up being worth the cost. MacLellan seems to be focusing on building depth in the forwards on his roster, and from past comments and the eventual failure to retain Latta it seems that he simply wasn’t a versatile enough player to fit MacLellan’s vision for the future.

It will take watching the probable third line of Daniel Winnik and Justin Williams working with Eller as their center to see how and if playoff-worthy chemistry develops. The Capitals can only hope it will, and that other players will step up to bring the energy and dedication Michael Latta did to the game.