by Jack Anderson, Special to District Sports Page
Washington Capitals center Brooks Laich is well-known around the league for his multi-faceted game and the intense preparation that precludes it. The rugged veteran’s meticulous approach is not a glamorous one, but his physical, aggressive style has become the gold standard for aspiring two-way forwards, and has earned the respect of fans, teammates and coaches alike.
So it made sense when fellow power forward Troy Brouwer sought Laich out for a crash course upon his arrival to the Capitals organization by way of an offseason trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It’s tough,” Brouwer said of the change of scenery. “Anytime you come to a new city you got to learn the lay of the land, you got to learn your teammates – who you’re going to hang out with, where you’re going to fit in – stuff like that … Brooks has been here a long time and I knew him when I played with him in juniors for a couple games. Halpy [center Jeff Halpern], me and him sat next to each other in the plane for the first half the year.
“When you’re at the rink, they’ve got a lot of good insight,” he added. “It’s easy to talk to those guys.”
Adapting to new surroundings is never simple, but Laich eased Brouwer into his new home, showing him everything from the best DC-area restaurants to the expectations on the ice.
“I think Troy is really growing with the season,” Laich said. “First fifteen, twenty games, he’s a new guy on the team. He’s trying to find his role, trying to get his feet wet and now he’s settled in and he’s playing great hockey.
Despite an unexpected midseason coaching change, Brouwer has managed to carve out a place in Washington under Dale Hunter and it’s one both the bench boss and Laich can appreciate.
“Troy is a power forward,” Hunter said. “He can score goals, but also he’s in front of the net, screening … It’s a dirty job, you know you’re taking abuse by the D and also you’re getting hit by the puck so it takes some bravery to stand in there.”
But Brouwer’s game is far from limited.
“He does everything,” Laich said. “He plays at both ends, he scores big goals, he shoots the puck, he’s physical. Every night you look at the sheet and he’s got five, six hits and they’re not just rubbing somebody out. They’re solid, knock-the-guy’s-breath-out type hits.”
This year, Brouwer is eighth in the league with 178 hits and is on pace to reach the 20-goal plateau for the second time in his short career. He’s also one of the team’s top forwards on both the power play and penalty kill.
“I think that physicality is a big part of my game,” he said. “I think when I’m finishing all my checks and creating turnovers, that’s when I’m at my best … So you know I try and help out in that aspect and it creates offensive opportunities as a result of it.”
Tough minutes and dirty goals are the norm these days for Brouwer, but that rough-and-tumble mentality wasn’t always engrained in him. While playing junior hockey in the WHL he was more of an offensive threat, racking up 102 points with the Moose Jaw Warriors in 2005-06 before registering 133 points in two seasons in the AHL.
However after being called up by the Blackhawks in 2008-09, he soon realized there was more to the game than scoring.
“In the AHL, you’re trying to do what makes you successful to get to the NHL and then when you’re in the NHL you got to find where you fit within the team and every team’s different,” Brouwer said. “My first year I was kind of a third-, fourth-line guy just finding my way.”
But the timing was perfect and Brouwer rode the wave of his call-up, playing in 69 games that season. His transition to the professional level took another step in 2009-10 as he recorded 22 goals and 40 points along with eight more in the postseason to help the Blackhawks raise the Stanley Cup.
Since that solid sophomore season, the 6-3, 213-pound winger has only improved his all-around game while playing with such stars as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin. This season, Brouwer picked up his first career hat trick in January and appears to be getting more and more comfortable with each passing game.
[At first], coaches are trying to get comfortable with you and then after that I felt I’ve had some pretty good seasons,” Brouwer said of his young career. “I think I have that ability to score and contribute offensively, but I think my game’s rounding out a little bit more.”
With Laich playing in a reduced role after injuring his knee against the boards in a Feb. 5 game against Boston, the onus is on Brouwer to help pick up the slack especially with the Capitals on the outside of the playoff picture heading into the homestretch.
After all, it’s only fitting for him to pay Laich back for the early season hospitality.
“Each season I think I’ve progressed as a player a little bit more and a little bit more,” Brouwer said. “As far as that goes I like where I’m at right now, but I got to make sure that I’m bearing down and finishing as many chances as I have.”