Over the summer, the Washington Capitals have signed a trio of players in free agency: forwards Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, and Brendan Leipsic. The Capitals issued the following uniform numbers to them: Panik will wear #14, Hathaway will wear #21, and Leipsic will wear #28. The Caps currently project Hathaway and Leipsic to man the fourth line while Panik will have a role on the third line.
The fact that these three players wear those particular numbers brings back memories of three other players who wore those numbers in the past. This was back in the “Young Guns” era, when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were still considered to be young players. At that time, the bearers of those numbers were: Tomas Fleischmann who wore #14, Brooks Laich who wore #21, and Alexander Semin who wore #28.
How They Were Acquired
Alexander Semin was one of the Caps’ three first round choices in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, drafted with the thirteenth pick overall. He earned a role with the Caps during the 2003-04 season. Initially he wore #74 in training camp, but switched to #28 by the time the regular season started. Semin played in the Russian Super League during the lockout season of 2004-05 and did not return to the team until the 2006-07 season. He began that year on the third line, as a power play specialist, but earned his way to the second line before the season was complete and was second in goals scored, only behind Alex Ovechkin.
Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann were prospects acquired as part of their “rebuild of 2004”. The veteran-laden team got off to a poor start during the 2003-04 season; hence, the team’s management decided they would be better off doing a rebuild and trading the veteran stars for picks and prospects.
The Caps acquired Brooks Laich and a second-round draft pick from the Ottawa Senators on February 18, 2004 in exchange for long time star forward, Peter Bondra. At that time, Laich had played in one NHL game with the Senators. He ended up playing in four games with the Caps that season.
With the NHL lockout in effect, he played with their AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates for the 2004-05 season. He started off the 2005-06 season with their new AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, but was called up to the Caps soon after and played in 73 games for them. He rejoined the Bears when the Caps’ season was over for their playoff run that resulted in the Bears winning the Calder Cup championship. Laich was listed as a center but was primarily played left wing. He had originally been drafted by the Ottawa Senators during the sixth round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
Just a week after acquiring Laich on February 26, the Caps acquired Tomas Fleischmann and two draft picks (either 2004 or 2005 first rounder and 2006 fourth rounder) from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for center Robert Lang, who was leading the NHL in goals at the time of the trade.
Fleischmann had been a second round selection of the Red Wings in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft but, and at the time of the trade, was playing junior hockey for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League (WHL).
He signed an entry level contract with the Caps prior to the 2004-05 season and was assigned to the Portland Pirates. During 2005-06, he played with the Hershey Bears and was an important part of their Calder Cup championship team. He was called up to the Caps during both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. He joined the Caps full time during their 2007-08 season. Fleischmann was listed as left wing but had also played center when younger.
The three forwards, Semin, Laich, and Fleichmann, were less than a year apart in age, with Laich the eldest, being born in June 1983, while Semin and Fleischmann were born in 1984.
The Young Guns Years
The 2007-08 season was the first season where Semin, Fleischmann, and Laich were all teammates. That season, Semin finished second on the team in goals, with 26, although it was less than his previous season’s total of 38, as he missed a significant amount of time due to a sprained ankle.
The 2007-08 season was also famously the season where Head Coach, Glen Hanlon, had gotten fired on Thanksgiving Day and was replaced by Bruce Boudreau, who then had started his third season as the Hershey Bears’ Head Coach. Both Laich and Fleischmann thrived when reunited with Boudreau even as they moved between different lines, depending on the team’s needs, as the team had dealt with numerous injuries that season. Fleischmann, in his first full NHL season, scored 10 goals and had 20 assists. Laich, meanwhile, had scored 20 goals and had 16 assists. Laich’s 20 goals was third on the team.
Semin, Laich, and Fleischmann had clearly earned regular roles to start the 2008-09 season. Prior to the season, Fleischmann had changed his number from #43 to #14 after fellow young forward, Eric Fehr, had changed his number from #14 to #16. All three of them improved their productivity during the 2008-09 season in which the Caps proved their second half performance of the previous year was no fluke. Recall that the 2007-08 season was one where the team had made a dramatic improvement within the season, being dead last in the NHL on Thanksgiving Day and improving enough to make the playoffs.
In 2008-09, the team finished first in the Southeast Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference. Semin scored 34 goals, Laich scored 23 goals, and Fleischmann scored 19 goals. For much of the year, either Laich or Fleischmann would play on the second line while the other would play on the third line, depending on what skills were needed then. Fleischmann was considered to be more of a skilled player, while Laich was considered to be more of a “close in” scorer who famously was quoted before that season as saying, “If you want money, go to the bank. If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net.” Plus, player deployments were frequently subject to change that season as 2008-09 was another season where the Caps had to deal with injuries. Fleischmann started off well during the 2008-09 season but had pneumonia midway through the season and wasn’t as productive in the latter portion.
The 2009-10 season, which resulted in the Caps winning the President’s Trophy, was even better for the trio. Semin scored 40 goals and had 44 assists for career highs, despite being dogged by a wrist injury for the entire month of November. Despite missing training camp and the first month of the season due to blood clot issues, Fleischmann had his best season, scoring 23 goals and getting 28 assists. Laich also had a fine season, scoring 25 goals and getting 34 assists.
That year, the Caps had seven players score more than 20 goals. During early January, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau decided to use Fleischmann as the second line center, as he wanted to keep both he and Laich on the second line. While Laich could function as a third line center, the feeling was that he was a better winger and belonged on the second line. Hence, the #14-#21-#28 line was born, with Fleischmann functioning as center.
One of my memories from that year was the fact that one of my friends gave each of her three sons Caps jerseys for Christmas that season and the three jerseys that were gifted were those of Semin, Fleischmann, and Laich, the multiples of #7. She took a picture of her sons wearing those jerseys. Unfortunately, the post season was not successful for the Caps as the Montreal Canadiens ousted them in the first round in seven games.
End of the Line
The group was broken up when the Caps traded Fleischmann in December 2010 for defenseman, Scott Hannan. With Fleischmann becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and the fact that the Caps needed defense, the trade was made. As it turned out, Fleischmann had more blood clots that season and had to miss more time. Hannan, the defenseman acquired in the trade, also was a free agent after the 2010-11 season. Fleischmann then signed a four year contract with the Florida Panthers and was extremely productive his first season there but was less effective at the end of his contract. He then signed a PTO (player tryout contract) with the Montreal Canadiens and started off well but was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline. He failed his training camp physical prior to the 2016-17 season and that was the end of his NHL career. His career was over at age 32.
Semin left the team in free agency after the 2011-12 season and signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. He remained with them through the 2014-15 season. He had wrist surgery before the 2014-15 season and his goal scoring drastically dropped that year, from a perennial 20 plus goal scorer to just 6. Hence, the Carolina Hurricanes bought out his contract during the summer of 2015. He signed a deal with the Montreal Canadiens but got off to a slow start and was waived. He then left the NHL and joined the KHL which was the end of his NHL career, prior to his 32nd birthday.
Laich played for the Kloten Flyers for the Swiss League after the 2011-12 season while the NHL lockout was going on. He injured his groin and only played in 9 games for the Caps during the 2012-13 season. His productivity dropped greatly. Prior to his injury, he generally scored between 15-25 goals per season. He never scored 10 goals again, dropping each year. The Caps traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline in the 2015-16 season. He played in the minors during the 2016-17 season and played a few games for the Los Angeles Kings early in the 2017-18 season before being released. That was the end of his NHL career. He was officially done in the NHL at age 34 but was effectively done at age 32.
The men wearing the jerseys that were multiples of the number 7 had careers that had burned brightly for the Caps during the Young Guns era and played important roles. But all three of their careers ended prematurely due to health issues. Looking back at the careers of those players gives a fan a greater appreciation of the continued endurance of Alex Ovechkin, who is still going strong, especially considering that those players are barely older than Ovechkin, with Semin and Fleischmann being just one year older and Laich just two years older.
By Diane Doyle
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