After a big offseason for Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, the Caps will enter the 2015-2016 campaign with the strongest top six forward corps they've had in a good long while. While camp hasn't even started, it's easy money betting on the top two lines being comprised of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, newcomers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and one of Andre Burakovsky or Marcus Johansson.
Because of the density at the top of the lineup, the Caps are going to see some top six skill trickle down to their third line (likely in the form of either Burakovsky or Johansson). Despite the promise of a little more finesse on this line than what we've seen in the past, the departure of Joel Ward, who tucked home 35 even strength goals in his four years in Washington (only Ovechkin, Backstrom, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera scored more over the same period), and Eric Fehr, who scored 32, leaves a sizable hole on that line.
Tom Wilson, two completed seasons into his NHL career and perhaps the largest enigma on the Caps' roster.
Despite supplementing his physicality—which has had no trouble making the transition to the larger-bodied NHL—with a bit of offense during his time in the OHL (Wilson potted 35 goals and 72 points in 125 games in three seasons with the Plymouth Whalers, including 23 goals and 35 assists in 48 games in 2012-2013, the season of his 18th birthday), Wilson has scored only 7 NHL goals and 20 points in 149 games played.
That doesn't exactly follow the trend curve I envisioned two years ago when I used their freakishly similar progression through juniors to compare Tom Wilson to Milan Lucic. And it might not align with Wilson's expectations with himself either. As he told CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley, "I'm a third-year guy now and there's really no excuses. I should be playing (meaningful) minutes and contributing to the team every night, whether that's offensively or defensively on a given night. I just need to be able to play my role and continue to help the team. That's the expectation and I'm not going to accept anything less."
Through Lucic's first two NHL seasons, he had also played 149 games. But that's where the similarities stopped, as Lucic had scored 25 goals and 69 points. However, Lucic also saw almost 13 ½ minutes of TOI per game and his two most common linemates were Phil Kessel and Marc Savard.
Wilson, by comparison, has seen only 9:20 TOI per game, and has spent most of that with Jay Beagle (who, by the way, has played in 25 fewer games than Wilson but seen 110 more minutes of ice, though much of that is probably due to Beagle having a key role on the PK unit). After Beagle, Wilson has spent the most time with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but that's less because he's actually seen significant time with them, and more because the rest of his line has been a rotation of the likes of Aaron Volpatti, Michael Latta, Chimera, and Brooks Laich.
The point is, the departures of Ward and Fehr make Wilson a pretty sure bet on the third line this season. After all, you don't want your first round draft pick with 150 big-league games under his belt stuck on a fourth line that, in the NHL, is largely treated as a plug-and-play carousel. And while Wilson may not necessarily escape Beagle, who's coming off a career year and was awarded with a new contract this offseason, as his pivot, he'll almost certainly be seeing consistent (and a larger quantity of) minutes with more talented players than he's had to date. And a slick-skating shooting threat (Johansson shot the puck last year more than he ever had) will open up space for Wilson to use his size and physicality where it's most effective: in front of the net.
And it's evident the Caps' want Wilson to work on his hands. According to Gormley:
On Wednesdays Wilson worked with a skills coach, flipping pucks over sticks, weaving through obstacle courses and repeatedly catching pucks off the base of the boards.
"I wanted to put in the work so that when I came in here it was second nature," Wilson said. "You don't want to be coming in here starting to work on your skills. That's what the summer's for, putting in the work.
To that end, the front of the net is primarily where Wilson has resided during his young NHL tenure, and obviously his boxcars aren't particularly impressive in spite of it. JP touched on this last week, but it's worth rehashing: shooting percentage from inside 27.5 feet is 4.1%, which is laughably low, and almost definitely unsustainable. In fact, there isn't a single player in the NHL who has a shorter average shot distance and a lower shooting percentage than Wilson. If Wilson gets some more minutes, with some more offensively gifted linemates, you can almost be certain that his numbers will jump up. If you add regression to the mean (progression, conventionally), you're looking at the possibility for some pretty stark boxcar inclines.
For what it's worth, Wilson has spent negligible time with Johansson (56:55 5v5 TOI) and Burakovsky (21:29), but in extremely limited minutes with them, he's put up 2 points...which is to say that 10% of Wilson's career point total have come in the 5% of his total ice time that he's spent with them.
Remember, young Tommy is still just 21 years old, and the upcoming season is likely going to be the first time he's put in a situation where meaningful offensive contribution can be considered a reasonable expectation. He still may or may not be the Caps' version of Milan Lucic, but if you look closely at what he's done with what he's been given, and then think about what he should get this year, it's easy to conclude that Tom Wilson's scoring touch could be close in arriving.