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Capitals Have Strong 4th-Line Center in Michael Latta

Michael Latta is the often forgotten about player in what could go down as one of the more lopsided deals in hockey history. Latta came to the Caps along with Martin Erat in the deal that sent Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators.

Last season, Latta joined a noteworthy group. He was just the 50th forward in the history of the NHL to play in at least 50 games in a season and fail to register a goal. To some it may be surprising that, without much of a battle, Latta locked down the Caps’ fourth-line center role entering the 2015-16 season. Despite his inability to put one in the back of the net last season, Latta is up to the task of centering the Caps’ fourth line this season.

He posted respectable possession numbers in his 53 games last season. His +0.72 percent score-adjusted relative shot attempt percentage ranked sixth among the 13 forwards who skated at least 400 5v5 minutes for the Caps in 2014-15. While this number doesn’t jump off the page, most teams would be pretty content with a fourth line center who has a positive impact on the team’s possession. For his career, entering the 2015-16 season, Latta’s score-adjusted shot attempt percentage was 51.08 percent, while his relative shot attempt percentage was +0.56 percent. Again, these are numbers that most teams would be perfectly content with from their fourth line center.

Breaking down the possession numbers a little more would be helpful. After all, while a it’s always a good thing for a player to be a positive possession player, most teams would also prefer that their fourth line center avoid being a high event player, high event meaning there are a lot of shot attempts for both teams, as a team’s fourth line is not likely to come out on top in any track meets. So, looking at the rate at which teams get shots against Latta would be helpful.

The graph below, from War on Ice, is of all Caps forwards who played at least 400 5v5 minutes in 2014-15. The x-axis is shot attempts against per 60 minutes while the y-axis is scoring chances against per 60.

Latta is hiding all the way in the bottom left of the graph, which is a great sign if the Caps want a fourth line center who is not only going to win the possession battle, but do so while keeping the overall shot attempts events low while he’s on the ice.

The Caps allowed fewer shot attempts against per 60 minutes (45.13) with Latta on the ice than any other forward. The same is true for on-ice scoring chances against per 60, as Latta’s 19,93 was also the lowest among the Caps forwards. There were 93.8 total shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5v5 play when Latta was on the ice, which is also the lowest among Caps forwards and 19th lowest among the 389 forwards who played at least 400 5v5 minutes in 2014-15.

While Latta is a very viable option for the Caps’ fourth-line center job in 2015-16, there are parts of his game that he’ll need to improve if he’s going to be around for years to come. Most importantly, Latta is going to need to get the puck towards the net more often. He attempted just 7.17 shots per 60 minutes, which ranks 374th among all the forwards in the sample. Latta also generated just 23 scoring chances last season. While offensive flair isn’t necessarily part of the job requirement for a fourth line center, Latta is going to need to up his offensive contributions to solidify his place on the Caps for the years ahead.

Latta, like most fourth line centers, isn’t well known around the NHL. But he’s quietly establishing himself as a viable option in a fourth line center role for a team expected to contend this season. While some more offensive contributions would be nice, the Caps are likely perfectly content for Latta to continue to win the possession battle while playing low event hockey.

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