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Wilson Seizing Opportunity in Fifth Season

Tom Wilson finding a home in Capitals' top-six

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

It's sometimes easy to forget that Tom Wilson is still just 23 years old. Already in his fifth NHL season and with more than 350 games on his resume, Wilson has been a fixture in the Washington lineup since cracking the Opening Night roster in October 2013.

Only Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have appeared in more games for the Capitals since Wilson's 2013-14 rookie campaign.

Although the rugged power forward was primarily used as a third or fourth liner in his first four seasons, there was always a hope and a belief within the organization, that Wilson would eventually ply his trade in a top-six role.

"I'd think in the grand scheme of things, they see Tom there," says former Capitals forward Mike Knuble, who skated alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.

"When you take [Wilson] in the first round, you have visions of where you see this player and you hope that he'll be an extremely valuable player with top-line talent and the unbelievable amount of toughness and grit that he has already. You hope that you have a mainstay there."

Wilson is certainly making his case. With the Capitals mired in a prolonged slump in mid-November, head coach Barry Trotz juggled his forward trios and promoted Wilson up the depth chart.

Ahead of a Nov.22 home game against Ottawa, Wilson was elevated to the No.1 line where he skated alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom. It was hardly a short-term experiment with the trio remaining intact for 17 games into late December. The Capitals went 12-2-3 over the 17-game stretch.

"It's been two or three seasons since I last played with them," says Wilson, referencing a brief look he had on the top line in November 2014 in his second NHL campaign.

"There was a little bit of a click back then, but it's tough as a younger guy to play with those guys every night and to play those big minutes. But since then, I've added more responsibilities and tried to grow my game every year and so far, it's gone well."

Wilson says that he is better prepared for a top-six role than he was three years ago. In addition to expanding his workload and playing on the penalty kill last season, Wilson spent much of the offseason working on skill and conditioning.

"If you're playing top-six, you have to have your legs, you've got to be able to skate and you've got to be able to play more minutes," says Wilson.

Aside from his ability to better handle more minutes and tougher assignments, Wilson felt more at ease during his latest tour on the No.1 line.

"Just having a little more poise with the puck and a little bit more confidence to make a play," he says.

Wilson has made the most of his opportunities this season, highlighted by a career-best four-point night (two goals, two assists) in a 6-2 win over Chicago on Dec.6. Two nights later, the Capitals beat the Rangers 4-2, with Wilson assisting on the game-winner with 3:32 left in regulation before adding a highlight-reel insurance tally with 1:32 remaining.

Video: NYR@WSH: Wilson drives net for fortuitous goal

In a Dec.16 win against Anaheim, Wilson received a five-minute major for fighting and still played a career-high 19:58. Through Jan.8, Wilson was seeing 15:29 of ice-time per game, nearly four minutes more than his career average.

"What you're seeing is the Tom Wilson that the Washington Capitals drafted," says Trotz. "You're seeing a power forward that has some skill. He's got leadership qualities, he cares about his teammates and you can tell by how often he sticks up for the whole group."

Although Wilson has most recently been skating on the second line with Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov, we likely haven't seen the last of Wilson playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Playing with two of the game's best sounds like good work if you can find, but it also comes with its challenges.

 "You can start to get inside your own head," says Trotz. "You think you have to play the same way that they do, but the key is to keep playing your game and what got you there in the first place."

Knuble can attest. Although he was in his mid-30s and in a different stage in his career when he played with Ovechkin and Backstrom, Knuble still has an appreciation for the opportunity and challenge in front of Wilson.

"The problem that a young player will learn playing with those two is that you have to make your own decisions and make your own plays when the time comes," he says.

"You can't be constantly roaming the ice and deferring to those two. You have to trust your gut instincts and believe in yourself. If your gut says shoot the puck, then you've got to shoot the puck. You can't just change the way you play and always think about getting it to those guys. It's about finding a balance as a player to go with those guys and really figuring out a way that you can complement them."

Wilson has shown that he can produce points, but can he also fill a void in the top six, with his ability and willingness to fetch pucks from the corners and do some of the grunt work to create openings for his linemates.

"Everyone understands on our line what they bring to the table and for me it's energy, it's physicality and it's getting the puck back," Wilson says. "They expect me to keep it simple and they're such good players that if I'm keeping it simple and making plays, they're going to make things happen on the next level."

Now the question is whether Wilson can remain a top-six fixture or if he will return to playing 12-13 minutes on a third or fourth line.

"I wouldn't say he's out of his probation period by any means," notes Knuble, "but certainly it's a nice chunk. He's got to be feeling good about getting a significant segment of games with those two and good for him."

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