The Washington Capitals are off to a strong start in the 2014-15 campaign under new head coach Barry Trotz. The goaltending and defense were upgraded this offseason by first-year General Manager Brian MacLellan, with the secondary scoring the only question mark, albeit a meager one.
Washington is 3-1-2 on the season and have the best goal differential in the Metropolitan Division (+6). After the top forward line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer there are doubts. Trotz has reunited Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward on the third line, while keeping Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov on the fourth line with rookie Liam O’Brien, Michael Latta and Chris Brown rotating in on the wings. Aaron Volpatti could join that group when he returns from injury as well.
Washington’s second line is more of a mystery to what the long-term solution is. Brooks Laich suffered a shoulder injury and will miss the Capitals current road trip, which they opened with a 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Regular fourth liner Jay Beagle filled in for Laich on Washington’s second line with rookie Andre Burakovsky at center and Swedish forward Marcus Johansson at left wing.
Enter bruising wingerTom Wilson. The Capitals have impending decisions to make this season and where Wilson slots in will be a paramount one. There isn’t much room at the right wing position throughout the depth chart, with Brouwer, Ward and Laich currently filling that role in the top nine forward group.
Washington recently assigned Tom Wilson to Hershey, after he returned from an offseason injury. Rather than schedule him for a rehab assignment which gives him his NHL salary, Wilson heads to the AHL getting minor league pay, along with a chance for substantial minutes that will benefit him when a larger opportunity opens up in the NHL for the 20-year-old forward.
“Wilson, 20, registered 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and 151 penalty minutes in 82 games with the Capitals last season. The 6’4”, 207-pound right wing made his NHL regular-season debut on Oct. 1, 2013 at Chicago and registered his first NHL goal and point on Nov. 5, 2013 against the Islanders. Wilson finished the 2013-14 season ranked seventh in the NHL in penalty minutes and third among NHL rookies and Washington skaters in hits (197). The Toronto native was one of three NHL rookies to appear in all 82 games last season (Nathan MacKinnon, Tyler Johnson)” –Capitals PR
The former Plymouth Whalers (OHL) product played on Washington’s fourth line last season, collecting just ten points. He posted a 44.2 corsi-for percentage for Capitals forwards that played over 400 minutes during five-on-five close situations, last for all Washington forwards who fit that criteria. His line mates and small role had a big effect on those numbers, but the lack of possession hurt Washington significantly last year under Adam Oates, who was since let go this summer. Only four forwards earned a higher offensive zone start percentage than Wilson (31.2%) and he also started the most in the neutral zone of any Caps forward.
His assignment to Hershey creates multiple chances for strides in his development. He’ll be able to get about twenty minutes per game once he gets back in game shape along with top power play time and the chance to play with skilled players. The Hershey Bears system is transparent with Washington and first-year AHL head coach Troy Mann will guide his team to a similar playing style like Trotz. Both coaches are big on accountability from their players.
There needs to be an opening for Wilson when he returns, whether it’s as the right wing slot on the second or third line. The benefit of playing in the NHL isn’t completely there if he’s getting less than ten minutes per game as opposed to playing top line minutes in the AHL with Hershey. He’s only 20 years old and is still learning the game. Playing without the puck is something Wilson needs to work on, along with his skating, a part of his game that worried scouts prior to the NHL draft.
Spending a month or two in Hershey until the Capitals find an offensive role for him is a good option for Washington to have. Having him fight on the fourth line is not a smart option for a former first round selection. Playing him with skill players will utilize his talents entirely and that’s what Washington needs to do, without question.
Matthew Speck covers the Washington Capitals organization for The Hockey Writers. He provides coverage of both Washington at the NHL level and prospect related content. Matthew also covers local sports for the Lebanon Daily News in Central Pennsylvania. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.