Early in his tenure with the Washington Capitals, forward T.J. Oshie might have looked for his linemates a little too much on the ice. That arguably comes with the territory in playing with two talents in Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, and they had to encourage him not to defer so much.
“Sometimes, it’s still there,” Oshie said. “When you get the puck, you’re always thinking, ‘Where’s [number] eight?'”
On Saturday night, Backstrom and Ovechkin wanted to get the puck to No. 77. After Oshie scored two first-period goals, his linemates tried and tried to set up his first hat trick of the season. With less than a minute left in the team’s game against Tampa Bay, Backstrom fed Oshie to dump a puck into an empty net. With those three goals, Oshie set a career high and also took over the team lead in goals with 29.
“It feels good,” Oshie said. “For sure, this is something that I’ve worked for. Also, I’m playing with some pretty good players around me who have done a good job getting me the puck in scoring areas. It’s a combination of things, but I’m happy for it.”
Oshie is likely to become the Capitals’ first 30-goal scorer other than Ovechkin since the 2009-10 season, and if he maintains the team lead in goals, it will mark the first time Ovechkin hasn’t finished the season with that title since joining the team 12 years ago.
After finally finding a top-line winger to consistently play alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom, Washington will have to consider how much its willing to pay to keep Oshie, a pending unrestricted free agent enjoying the most productive season of his career.
“Obviously, we’d like to have him back,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said last month. “He’s been a big part of what we’ve got going on here. I like everything about the player and the person. He’s a great fit.”
MacLellan said he has spoken to Oshie’s representation, but because Washington has 11 players on the roster with expiring contracts, it’s unlikely the team will re-sign Oshie before the end of the season. With the expansion draft looming this summer and the Capitals able to protect just seven forwards, it could make more sense for Washington to wait to re-sign any pending unrestricted free agents until after the expansion draft in June as a way to protect more players because Las Vegas seems unlikely to draft someone who could hit the open market July 1. “If everything lines up perfectly,” MacLellan agreed. “It’s a tough balance.”
Oshie’s 29 goals and 20 assists have come in 58 games, meaning he’s averaging the most points per game (0.84) of his career. He was also a top playoff performer last postseason with six goals and four assists in 12 games. That will all make Oshie one of the most coveted players if he indeed hits free agency, potentially commanding a cap hit north of $6 million a season. His current cap hit is $4.175 million.
Oshie’s impressive production in a contract year are good for his financial prospects going forward, but it’s also what could make it hard for the team to re-sign him.
“When you have a wife and two kids, you have to think about it a little bit, but anyone that knows me knows that I’m extremely present,” Oshie said. “It’s always in the back of your mind where you’re going to be because I have a family to think about. But same token, I’m just approaching every day to come have fun at the rink, get better and do something special.”
Said Coach Barry Trotz: “Some players sort of wilt under that pressure. I think he’s real focused. He wants to play the game for a long time, and he enjoys playing here. He’s having an exceptional year.”
The Capitals’ priority will likely be re-signing their top restricted free agents in Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitry Orlov, all of whom will be due significant pay raises. Brett Connolly, Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer will also be restricted free agents this summer and are all players Washington will want on the roster next season. Oshie’s inflated 24.2 shooting percentage could be a slight strike against him because it’s considered unsustainable and a sign that, at 30 years old, his production will likely decline going forward.
But after the team experimented with nine different wingers beside Ovechkin and Backstrom during the 2014-15 season, Oshie’s fit there has taken some pressure off his superstar linemates and also contributed to the team having the NHL’s best regular season record since he’s arrived.
“He keeps pucks and plays alive, and his skill set is such that it can complement Backy’s playmaking ability, and now he’s finding the back of the net and he’s complementing Alex’s ability to score, too,” Trotz said. “Now Alex is passing the puck more; I think Alex has more assists than he’s had in a while. I think they’re rubbing off on each other a little bit, and that’s probably why it’s working.”
It’s been a good fit for Oshie, too. He hasn’t felt restricted offensively in Trotz’s system, and he has sensed the creativity return in his game. Off the ice, Oshie’s wife, Lauren, and his 3-year-old daughter, Lyla, have grown close with other players’ wives and children.
“I don’t think it could have worked any better,” Oshie said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better fit, I don’t think.”