Alex Ovechkin and Barry Trotz think Tom Wilson can be to the Washington Capitals what Milan Lucic already is to the Boston Bruins.
Ovechkin said he envisions a time in the near future when he, center Nicklas Backstrom and Wilson, who is 20 years old, resemble Boston's former top line with Lucic, center David Krejci and either Nathan Horton or Jarome Iginla.
"He's young and people don't know him well, but he's going to score two or three goals and people are going to put more attention on him and it's going to take attention away from me and [Backstrom]," Ovechkin told NHL.com. "Everybody is going to know that this line can produce no matter who is with the puck. He's still learning. We're helping him a lot. We talk and say what we have to do and what he has to do."
Wilson played his 15th consecutive game (broken up by a two-game absence because of injury) on the Capitals' top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin on Tuesday. He entered the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning with five points (two goals, three assists) as a member of the top line, but his potential production has been hurt of late because Ovechkin had gone cold with no points in the four games prior to playing the Lightning.
Ovechkin ended his drought when he scored 40 seconds into the game against the Lightning, largely because Wilson hunted down the puck behind the net and set him up in the slot.
"I'm pretty sure he's going to be a really good player in the future, and right now he's learning a lot," Ovechkin said. "To play with [Backstrom] and myself, I think we have great chemistry. He can create more offense and he's going to be used that way.
"He's still young, but he's so tough. In the future it's going to be very scary to play against him. Right now people are afraid to play against him."
Trotz identified Wilson as a top-line player prior to training camp, but he couldn't use him there because Wilson started the season on injured reserve; he was recovering from a broken ankle, an injury he sustained during the summer.
Trotz wants to use Wilson with high-end offensive players because he feels he can complement them with his size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and his ability to make defenses collapse closer to the net with his strong middle drive and power coming out of the corners.
"He can go get pucks and get them to [Backstrom] and Ovi, and you want them to have the puck a lot," Trotz said. "He gives a big presence. People want to take advantage of those two guys, and Tom is very capable of controlling that aspect of the game. And I believe he's got a good enough hockey IQ and skillset where he can just complement guys, very similar to Lucic in Boston. He can play with the top players, grind it out, play any style of game. I think Tom is there."
He just needs to stay there on a consistent basis.
Wilson said Trotz has been on him about going to the front of the net and staying there because of the traffic it causes in front of the goalie and the room it inevitably gives to Backstrom and Ovechkin.
"[Backstrom] is so good with the puck that if I'm working hard and getting him the puck, going to the net, it'll free up some space and he's going to do some good things," Wilson said. "Definitely over the last couple games Trotz has spoken to me about going to the net and staying there for point shots, just using my big body to create screens on those goalies."
It is a big change for Wilson, who was a fourth-line player as a rookie last season.
"You feel way more involved, you have a greater impact on the game," he said of playing on the top line. "If you don't have a good night it reflects on the game a lot more than if you don't have a good night on the fourth line. You can't hide."
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 7
SOG: 28 | +/-: -2
Wilson is also learning the value of staying available. While Trotz isn't opposed to Wilson fighting, which he had done four times since joining Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line entering Tuesday, Wilson is starting to understand that being available is better than sitting in the penalty box.
He said he won't change his game, but Wilson admitted that fighting in three straight games, as he did late last month, is too much.
"I don't focus on it too much, it's heat of the moment, protecting teammates, standing up for myself and if that happens it happens, but definitely I'm trying to cut it back," Wilson said. "When you spend time in the box you can't score, right? You spend five minutes in the box it breaks up the lines, it changes the function of the game. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. If we're down maybe it's a good thing. But if the game is going well and all four lines are rolling then it's probably not a good time to fight because it definitely does shuffle stuff up."
Washington forward Brooks Laich thinks Wilson on the top line is good for the Capitals now and will be great for Wilson down the line.
"If you're playing on the fourth line, you hope that guy comes in and has a good game and gives some energy, but on the first line you have to do it every shift," Laich said. "I think it's great culturing for him to learn the professionalism of playing every night, playing every shift and playing 18-20 minutes against top competition. It's only going to make him a better player. Even if he doesn't stay there all year, he's going to be a better player because of his experience there."