It's easy to forget sometimes that Caps right wing Tom Wilson is still just 22 years old. Now in his fourth full season in the league, Wilson has shown incremental improvement every season he has been in the league, but he still started out this season on the fourth line.
But after a couple of rare consecutive losses, Caps coach Barry Trotz re-jiggered his forward lines, elevating Wilson to the team's top nine on the right side of a unit with Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Wilson has skated more than 16 minutes in each of Washington's last two games, since Trotz made those changes. The young winger admits his mindset is altered a bit now, playing alongside more skilled players.
"I think a little bit, it has to," says Wilson. "You've got to hold onto the puck a little bit more, because you're expected to make things happen when you're playing with those guys. The fourth line game is a little bit different. It's low reward, but you've got to make sure you get the puck in, and you've got to grind teams down.
"The mentality changes a little bit. I want to bring my element of my game to that line. I don't want to forget where I came from. I want to create space for them, work hard, be hard on pucks, and hopefully I make that line a little bit harder to play against and then they bring that skill element and hopefully it fits pretty well."
Wilson scored his first goal of the season against the Canucks in Saturday's game, and he skated 64 more seconds than Caps captain Alex Ovechkin in Sunday's win over Calgary.
Wilson has now played more than 16 minutes in consecutive games for first time since Nov. 20-26, 2014 when he did so in three straight games while skating on the right side of a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"Tom has kept his identity," says Trotz. "He is still hard to play against and is still a physical presence, but he is playing real good minutes. That line has got really good balance. You've got a real skilled center man in Kuznetsov, and Jojo is skating really well and shooting the puck. It probably forces Jojo to shoot the puck a little bit more than he normally does. Tom is retrieving pucks, heading to the hard areas and playing well on both sides of the puck. I think that line has some really good balance."
Now in his fourth NHL season, Wilson has gone through the first eight games of the 2016-17 season without taking a minor penalty, the longest such streak of his career. During his rookie NHL campaign of 2013-14, Wilson twice went seven straight games without incurring a minor penalty.