ARLINGTON, Va. – As Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz initially toyed with his roster after being hired in May, he pictured Tom Wilson as the first-line right wing next to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Offseason ankle surgery for Wilson, necessitated by what the Capitals described as a “fall,” delayed Trotz’s plans.
In the first period of Washington’s 6-5 loss Sunday to the Arizona Coyotes, the 20-year-old graduated to the top line and provided a glimpse of what Trotz had envisioned on his first goal of the season: drifting toward the crease, establishing position and deflecting an Ovechkin shot into the net.
He finished the game with a career-high 15:04 of ice time.
"I don't want to change my game too much, but I think they kind of change your game,” Wilson said of playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom. “They're such good players that they create space for you and they get in good places for you, so it's easier for you to play and allows you to make plays when they're in all the right spots and really contributing to your game.”
As a rookie last season, Wilson averaged 7:56 of ice time per game, earning 151 penalty minutes as the Capitals’ de facto enforcer. New general manager Brian MacLellan didn’t agree with Wilson’s usage, knowing that he possessed the multifaceted skill set to become a top-six forward.
It’s an opinion that Wilson’s teammates share.
“He’s a fast guy and he goes into dirty areas,” Backstrom said. “He’s playing physical and he played up the last game when he got that goal. It’s going to get better and better the more games he plays.”
In Wilson, Trotz sees a player with “bite” that can create space for his linemates, forecheck hard and deter opponents from taking liberties with teammates. Perhaps most importantly, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson can help make life more difficult for opposing goaltenders.
“We don’t have enough net presence,” Trotz said. “We don’t have a lot of interior play. We need to be a better cycle team, we need to be a better down-low, filter-everything-to-the-net type of team. If we’re going to have success, we’re not at the net enough for me. If we’re at the net a little bit more, we’re going to keep things alive, we’re going to score a few more goals.”
The Capitals, who have lost four straight and five of six (1-5-0), will need an improved effort Tuesday against the Calgary Flames, coincidentally the only team they’ve defeated in the past two weeks. Calgary is 2-0-1 since losing Oct. 25 to Washington.
Here are the projected lineups:
Curtis Glencross – Sean Monahan – David Jones
Lance Bouma – Markus Granlund – Jiri Hudler
Sven Baertschi – Paul Byron – Devin Setoguchi
Brandon Bollig – Josh Jooris – Brian McGrattan
Mark Giordano – TJ Brodie
Kris Russell – Dennis Wideman
Ladislav Smid – Deryk Engelland
Scratched: Raphael Diaz
Injured: Johnny Gaudreau (illness), Sam Bennett (shoulder surgery), Mikael Backlund (abdomen), Joe Colborne (upper body), Matt Stajan (knee), Mason Raymond (shoulder), Michael Ferland (concussion)
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Tom Wilson
Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Andre Burakovsky – Joel Ward
Liam O’Brien – Michael Latta - Jay Beagle
Brooks Orpik – John Carlson
Karl Alzner – Matt Niskanen
Nate Schmidt – Mike Green
Scratched: Eric Fehr, Jack Hillen
Injured: Brooks Laich (shoulder), Aaron Volpatti (upper body), Dmitry Orlov (wrist), John Erskine (neck surgery)
Status report: Gaudreau is dealing with the flu and is a game-time decision, according to Sportsnet. … Laich, who has missed the past six games with a shoulder injury, skated in a non-contact jersey prior to the morning skate. He won’t play Tuesday, but is hoping to return this weekend. “It’s certainly taken longer than I thought and coming a little slower, but being back on the ice with the team is a positive,” Laich said. “It means I’m getting pretty close.”
Who’s hot: Brodie has five points in his past three games, including three assists in the Flames’ 6-2 victory Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens. … At 825 NHL points, Ovechkin needs one more to supplant Peter Bondra as Washington’s franchise leader. “Right now, we’re in a situation where we have to win,” Ovechkin said. “Not about personal stats and all that. If it happens, [it] happens.”