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Potential Replacements for Tom Wilson

Who can fill the void left by Tom Wilson while he recovers from surgery?

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Florida Panthers Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

It’s can’t be overstated how key the loss of Tom Wilson was to the Capitals in the Florida Panthers playoff series. Losing arguably your most important playoff player, at least in terms of being the embodiment of the team’s identity (speed, physicality, skill), just a couple of minutes into Game One was a critical blow.

After the series wrapped, it was announced that Wilson underwent knee surgery and would be out for six to eight months, putting his earliest return at around Thanksgiving. That means the Caps will be without an important part of the team for a good portion of the start of the season - important not just for leadership on and off the ice, but also his ability to play with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alexander Ovechkin to make sure they don’t drown in shot quality against. He’s their defensive support and the one who makes sure they have the room to do what they do best.

With Wilson out for so long, what are some options for the Caps to make sure that first line keeps humming along?

As of now, the answer does not seem to be on the team. Conor Sheary took a shot up there, and for how versatile he is, that line did not do well when he was up there. T.J. Oshie always did well there in the past, but with him getting a year older it’s time to start lessening his minutes, not upping them. Anthony Mantha seems like the obvious answer, as he has the size, smarts, and skill to hang with that line... but head coach Peter Laviolette has rarely put Mantha up there, so we shouldn’t expect him to do so now.

There could be an answer in one of the kids, with Aliaksei Protas or Brett Leason waiting in the wings, both big bodies with skill. Protas did get a look on that line last season, but based on his overall performance there it doesn’t seem as if he was quite ready for the responsibility. As for Leason, you could probably count on one hand how many shifts he played in the top-six at all during his intro to the NHL, so it’s hard to see Laviolette throwing him up there (ditto for Axel Jonsson-Fjallby).

That leaves an outside source for a potential answer. Let’s take a look at which of the pending free agents could be that Wilson replacement - players who could hang with the big boys on that top line, be the puck retriever on the forecheck, chip in points when needed, but still able to move around the lineup once Wilson returns.

The first person on this list was Valeri Nichushkin, but after his monster playoffs there was no doubt Colorado would re-sign and that’s what they did, inking the Russian to a huge eight-year deal yesterday.

So we move on to other options.

Mason Marchment

Marchment is probably not that well known of a name because he was buried on a deep Florida Panthers team, but he put up fantastic numbers both analytically and in raw points. He ranked first relative to his team among starters in possession across the board, with +9.35 xGF%, +7.43 SCF%, +9.31 HDCF%, and +5.53 CF%.

Below is how the Panthers looked when Marchment was on and off the ice. As you can see, Florida suffered when Marchment wasn’t on the ice - maybe not as much on the offensive, although there was some dropoff, but on defense he was dearly missed. That’s the kind of thing you want to see from someone who needs to play with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.

And it wasn’t just puck possession he was strong at, he produced very well at even strength. Here is how he ranked on his team in terms of five-on-five offense:

  • 15 goals (6th)
  • 25 assists (4th)
  • 11 primary assist (7th)
  • 40 points (4th)

And that’s just raw numbers. It’s important to remember he only played 54 games this season - so if you adjust the stats to per-game rate, he ranked first in goals, assists, and total points, and fourth in primary assists. The Panthers had an historic offensive team this last season and Marchment ranked above or around names like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Carter Verhaeghe, and others.

Side note: his 3.42 five-on-five points per 60 ranked third in the NHL among all forwards that played 500 mintues. Third. Right behind Johnny Gaudreau and Mitchell Marner, and right in front of Auston Mathews. That’s amazing company to be a part of.

I know what you’re thinking, because it’s what I was thinking: “Marchment probably played with the top players like Huberdeau and Barkov and just fed off them”, but the truth is he didn’t.

According to Dobber’s Line Combination Tool, as seen above, he only played with Barkov once in the top five lines and Huberdeau doesn’t even make the cut. He spent most his time with Reinhart, Anton Lundell, and Eetu Luostarinen. I’m not saying those players aren’t great but they aren’t top tier. Reinhart is a good top goal scoring player; Lundel was a rookie, and though his future is bright, he wasn’t a dominating player; and Luostarinen is a hard working player but is a bottom six talent.

On top of all of that he plays a similar way to Wilson. He’s huge (6’4” 209lbs) that skates incredibly well, delivers huge bone crushing hits, wins his battles along the wall, and parks himself in front of the net (he ranked second in iHDCF/60 on his team). He might not have as good passing ability has Tom but all he has to do is win the puck battles and gets the puck to Kuznetsov or Ovechkin and let them get to work while he goes to the net.

The only negatives to Marchment’s game is this past season was only his second season in the NHL. He did well last season too, at least defensively (see above) but nowhere near as dominant as this season. Was his first season him just getting used to the NHL playing mostly fourth line minutes or was this season more of a fluke? That’s something Caps will have to find out, but signs point to Marchment being able to continue his strong season.

Evolving Wild

To sum it up, you have a big, heavy player that skates well, hits hard, is smart, hard working, a possession driver, can put up points, just turned 27 a couple weeks ago, and has little tread worn down at his age. What’s not to like? Add to this that he really won’t cost that much in free agency. The best thing he’s the kind of the player you can move all around your top nine. So when Wilson returns, you can shift Marchment to the third line if needed and his contract (probably close to $4M) will still be justifiable.

Ilya Mikheyev

Mikheyev is similar to Marchment in a lot of way: big boys (6’2” 192lbs), good skaters, great on the forecheck, can rely on in any situation. The difference is Ilya hasn’t had a break out season offensively like Marchent has but we’ll get into that later. Let’s first see how Ilya did with puck possession.

  • +2.84CF% (4th)
  • +2.29xGF% (4th)
  • +1.98SCF% (4th)
  • +4.58HDCF% (4th)

All three players ranked in front of the Russian are made up of arguably the best line in hockey with Bunting-Mathews-Marner. Outside that line, Mikheyev was the best possession player for the Maple Leafs.

As stated earlier, he hasn’t really popped offensively. This is how he ranks at 5v5 points compared to his team this past season:

  • 11 goals (7th)
  • 8 assists (11th)
  • 6 primary assists (9th)
  • 19 total points (9th)

That’s basically third line production. But if you switch the stats to “per game”, he ranks slightly better with being fourth in goals, 10th in assists, eighth in primary assists, and eighth in total points. Granted, he wasn’t playing with best offensive players as you can see below.

David Kampf, Peirre Engvall, and Ondrej Kase are all fine players but none of them are top six players (maybe Kase if he could stay healthy). As you can see he did get some time with John Tavares, as well as William Nylander and Mitchell Marner, but none as close to the time those top two lines played together.

There’s no question that Mikheyev is a strong puck possession player, especially defensively, and that’s what that first line desperately needs. The question becomes does he have enough offensive capabilities to keep up with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. He doesn’t have to be a high end passer or shooter but must be able to put up points up when needed. It’s a bit of a gamble but the hope is if you get Mikheyev signed to a low AAV number like $4M so that when Wilson comes back Ilya can move back to the third line and it won’t hurt the team cap wise, much like Marchment.

Jesse Puljujarvi

I probably won’t spend too much time on this for the sole purpose that Puljujarvi is a Finn and we all know the Caps hate Finns for some reason or another. The last Finn to play for the Capitals was Oskar Osala back in the 2008-2009 season who played two games. He was also the last Finn they drafted. Maybe Jesse can change that?

Usually I’d start with the possession metrics but let’s start with point production. Puljujarvi has a higher offensive ability than the three other players listed above, he was drafted fourth overall in 2016 for a reason, but he has yet to break out and he’s played minutes with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisitl. This is how he ranked this season at 5v5 among his team:

  • 9 goals (7th)
  • 16 assists (5th)
  • 15 primary assists (5th)
  • 25 points (5th)

That certainly isn’t terrible, still top six, but he is and should be better than that. And he doesn’t have the excuse that Marchment and Mikheyev have when they can say they weren’t playing with their top players, Puljujarvi literally spent most his time with the best player in the world.

The good news is where Jesse has faltered in production, he has more than made up for it with his puck possession. Lets take a look at how he ranked among his teammates.

  • +8.91CF% (1st)
  • +12.16xGF% (1st)
  • +8.14SCF% (1st)
  • +10.46HDCF% (1st)

Yes, Puljujarvi ranked first on his team in all of those stats. Reminder that two other guys on his team are McDavid and Draisitl; that’s all sort of impressive.

As seen above, Puljujarvi ranked first among his team in possession stats - an area you would think McDavid would lead - and as noted below, Puljujarvi was better playing away from McDavid than when McDavid was playing away from Puljujarvi, which wouldn’t be the case if he were just benefitting from time with McDavid to boost his stats.

Puljujarvi has been getting a lot of comparisons to another player on this list: Nichushkin. Nichuskin came in as a highly touted offensive prospect with the Dallas Stars but he never clicked their offensively. He left for Russia and when he came back signed with Colorado. He showed off his possession skills until his offensive game rounded it out, now he’s arguably the best two way top six player in the league.

Puljujarvi just turned 24, has a great size (6’4” 201lbs), skates very well, is a possession driver and has all sorts of untapped offensive potential. The bonus is it looks like Edmonton wants him gone so the price shouldn’t be too high and when he does sign it should be cheap, maybe around $3M? If Caps could pull off that trade it gets them younger, quicker, better at puck possession, and sets them up with a player that has huge upside.

But he’s a Finn so don’t get your hopes up.


Which free agent do you think the Caps should target for top RW?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Mason Marchment
    (138 votes)
  • 14%
    Ilya Mikheyev
    (34 votes)
  • 22%
    Jesse Puljujarvi
    (52 votes)
  • 4%
    Other (drop your preference in the comments!)
    (10 votes)
234 votes total Vote Now