With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, there's been a lot of talk about what the Capitals might need to acquire in order to make a deep run into this year's playoffs. And when Jay Beagle sees significant time on the top line, it's easy to recognize that first-line right wing might be on General Manager Brian MacLellan's shopping list.
But in reality, the Caps might already have the guy they're looking for to play alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the roster. In fact, the Caps have two forwards, both selected in the first round, that have the potential to be the Capitals' top-line right wing sooner rather than later: Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson. Each has his positive and negative attributes, but each has done well on the top line this season, especially if we're looking at the top trio's ability to possess the puck.
Our own Muneeb took a deep dive into the top line's advanced numbers with Burakovsky, Wilson, or Jay Beagle riding shotgun on that line, but let's take a quick step back from those numbers and look back to a time where most of us didn't even know those guys existed... the 2009-2010 NHL season.
So why are we waxing nostalgic about the year of Halak'd? Well, then Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau liked a few different line configurations for his top line, much like today. Ovechkin and Backstrom spent almost of their time playing together (again like today) while the right wing was occasionally changed. The two right wings who saw the most time with the top line (using Ovechkin as a proxy) were Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble. Both players saw a lot of success while playing with the dynamic duo. While having success with two of the league's top players is not surprising nor unique, the contrasts between the two right wingers makes it interesting.
Mike Knuble was lauded for his ability to create space for his more talented linemates. His big frame and individual skill level made him an offensive threat and a potential difference maker. His speed wasn't on the same level as Ovechkin's nor Backstrom's but perhaps that wasn't a bad thing. Knuble would often be the third man in on the rush, arriving just in time to knock in a rebound from an Ovechkin shot.
Alexander Semin, for all of his flaws, was a very good hockey player for the Capitals. His abilities were best displayed while creating offense on the rush or when lifting the puck away from an opponent on the back-check and quickly turning the play into a scoring chance the other way. Semin's wrist shot was(is) very unique and one of the best in the league.
While they are not there yet, the Caps have two young players on this year's roster that have skill sets comparable to those of Semin and Knuble. Both Burakovsky and Wilson have the tools needed to play relatively consistently on the top line now.
The parallels between Semin and Burakovsky are easy to draw. Both players are incredibly dynamic on the rush and have a wrist shot that, while sometimes unorthodox looking, can leave goalies feeling helpless.
Semin was able to quickly receive the pass at the blue line and went straight to a high percentage scoring area, once there he made no mistakes. While that particular play didn't involve too much transition, this goal from Andre Burakovsky certainly did:
Let's not kid ourselves, Burakovsky is definitely not playing at the level Alexander Semin played between 2007-2010 but it doesn't seem outrageous to think that he will get there someday. Here is a look at a pre-draft scouting report from International Scouting Services that had Andre Burakovsky ranked as the 16th best player in his class.
Only time will tell, but the tools are there for Burakovsky.
We haven't seen Wilson score very much so far in his NHL career. The hope is that he can start scoring a few more goals by making plays like the one Knuble makes here:
Knuble was able to score by driving the dirty areas, and fighting through the defender to get his stick back on the puck. While he wasn't always scoring, Knuble's line mates were. His ability to open up space often paid dividends. While Wilson hasn't really scored very many dynamic goals, he does have a few that came as result of some solid positioning.
Wilson has a mean streak that wasn't a common part of Knuble's game, at least not while he was with the Caps, but he (Knuble) was a relatively consistent point producer (something that Wilson has not done much at all). That being said there is reason to believe Wilson still has the potential to be a top line player, the Caps drafted Wilson to be a difference maker (not a face-puncher). It's even possible Wilson can be better than Knuble ever was... if he can discover his scoring touch (you can't teach size).
Well enough non-data talk, here is a look at the WOWY numbers from Hockey Analysis for Ovechkin from 2009-2010 and from this season (with only the relevant players displayed).
Obviously the Capitals are not possessing the puck quite as well as they did in their glory days... but they are still doing pretty darn well. The numbers for Knuble and Semin when playing with Ovechkin were outrageous (seriously how good was that team). Perhaps no number is more shocking than the Capitals GF60 of 5.57 when both Semin and Ovechkin were on the ice together during 5v5 play. While that rate is not quite as inflated for Burakovsky and Ovechkin as it once was with Semin, there is still a big jump in goal production when those two are on the ice together (albeit small sample). On the other hand you have Wilson and Knuble, who both appear to slow down goal scoring (both for and against) a little bit when on the ice with Ovechkin. Slightly off topic, but In the future with-or-without-you scoring chance data may help us glean some insight as to why players like Knuble and Wilson seem to slow down goal scoring without significantly impacting shot attempt rates.
In reality neither Burakovsky or Wilson are likely to produce at a crazy clip if given an extended look on the top line over the remainder of the season, and in all honestly the Wilson/Knuble comparison seems like a stretch right now. But remember that Knuble was a late bloomer - he didn't play an NHL game until his 24-year-old season and had just 50 goals in 353 games prior to his breakout 30-year-old season.
The point of these comparisons is to demonstrate that the Caps have the young talent to develop a top line winger from within the organization, and that they are not hurting themselves by playing Burakovsky or Wilson there now. The Capitals are very fortunate to have two of the the best forwards in the entire National Hockey League on their top line, and all they need to be successful is a right winger who isn't going to hold them back.